By Sarah Berkowitz
While his Eagles teammate Sam Bradford is finishing his rehab from ACL surgery and coach Chip Kelly finishes tinkering with the team’s roster, tight end Zach Ertz is putting the down time before the August 2 opening of training camp to good use.
He’s watching his girlfriend Julie Johnston play for the USA in the Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Ertz was staring at a TV in Ottawa last Friday afternoon, hanging on every pass of the Germany vs. France quarterfinal match and waiting patiently for his girlfriend – U.S. defender Johnston – to take the field against China.
“I’ve evolved into a soccer fan,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Ever since we started dating.”
“We just met out in Edmonton, at the game,” Ertz said. “He’s a great guy.”
Under most normal circumstances, Ertz would be the celebrity. He has caught touchdowns in BCS bowl games and plays America’s most popular sport in one of America’s most passionate football cities. But up here in Canada it’s futbolseason, not foot-BAW season, and Ertz was simply the large man in the entourage when fans approached Johnston this week in Ottawa.
“I was kind of in the background,” Ertz said. “And it was amazing to see. They all came up to her. Parents talked to me on the side. Julie was definitely the star.”
They met three years ago, when Ertz was at Stanford and Johnston was at Santa Clara. She showed up at a Stanford baseball game and Ertz spotted her.
“I was there with my buddies and saw her sitting in the student section,” he wrote in his blog, “and just decided I wanted to meet her. So I went up and sat right next to her. We just hit it off from there. We hung out a few more times and after that, we just decided that we were going to be together. That was that.”
They were long distance at first (at least in California traffic), so it was Ertz making the commute to Johnston’s campus to see her. He played soccer growing up, but didn’t really follow the sport at an elite level and didn’t quite understand how good she was at first. Now he’ll readily say she’s the better athlete.
“I’m gonna say it’s her just to make me look good,” he laughed. “We’re similar in a lot of ways.”
One of those ways is toughness. It’s quite clear Ertz can take a hit, and the same was true Friday for Johnston, who got a sharp knee in the ribs and promptly got back into the play and nearly scored a goal. Asked after the game who’s the tougher one in the relationship, Johnston swiveled her head and shot a side-eye glance.
“Depends on in what,” she smiled.
Ertz had a similar reaction.
“That’s a tie,” he said. “I’m not gonna give her that one. But she’s taking some hits. The grit she’s showing is impressive.”
Johnston is a breakout star in this tournament, launching herself from a last-minute addition to the roster to arguably the top U.S. performer. The story of the Americans has been the defense, having allowed only one goal and extending a shutout streak to 423 minutes in Friday’s 1-0 quarterfinal victory over China. And the story of the defense is the 23-year-old with the Minnie Mouse sticker on her headphones. She already has a reputation for her ferocious side – basically a linebacker in soccer shorts.
She gives some of the credit to Ertz, who has helped her with her running. He said her stride was “less than ideal” before they worked on it together.
“I’ve been taught by some pretty good experts in running form,” Ertz said. “It’s about putting force into the ground. In soccer it’s a sprint-jog-sprint. Sometimes they get used to their jogging form.”
Johnston’s form is pretty consistent – and effective. While some players can seem out of position on the pitch, Johnston is somehow everywhere she needs to be and everywhere she wants to be. Her aggression and her intellect are quite a potent combination, which is something that could be said about her Stanford-product boyfriend.
“He’s helped me immensely,” Johnston said. “He’s my running coach. It’s something I’ve needed.”
Of course, there are some differences between the two. Johnston is an outdoors person, an adventurer. Ertz isn’t as much. Johnston is also a bit of a culinary wizard.
“She’s an amazing cook,” he said. “Get that out there, please. She makes the best tacos I’ve ever eaten. She goes to Whole Foods and gets the carne asada. She marinates them herself. She’s got the melted cheese. Completely amazing tacos.”
And does Ertz have game in the kitchen?
“Uh, no,” he said.
Ah well, he doesn’t have to worry about that while she’s on the road to the World Cup title. And that’s been quite a lengthy road, especially considering the U.S. team might not be done until right before the start of NFL training camps.
One of the benefits of dating another top athlete is understanding the stress of travel and chasing a dream. Ertz had to dart out to California this weekend to work out before (he hopes) meeting Johnston again in Vancouver for the July 5 final. He’s gone back and forth between sweating out her matches in person – “Now I know what my mom went through,” he joked – and missing her.
“The hardest part is them being away,” Ertz said. “We’ll have the rest of our lives together hopefully.”
And in the meantime, he has his new friend Jrue.