It was a magnificent year for Julie Johnston Ertz ’14.
The Chicago Red Stars midfielder and U.S. women’s national team stalwart capped 2017 as U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year. “Set piece magic!” gushed one sportscaster. Another: “Her timing, her technique, is so crisp and clean.” And last spring, she and Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz took wedding vows.
Johnston scored the goal of the year in 2017. And she became only the third player ever to win both Young Female Player of the Year (2012) and Player of the Year. In between: the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup victory, and the 2016 Olympics.
As for the marriage, thank baseball—and sunflower seeds. At a Stanford ballgame, mutual friends seated Julie, then a sophomore at SCU, next to tall, soft-spoken Zach. Someone mentioned he was good at football; she was WCC Freshman of the Year for Broncos soccer. “Zach’s super shy,” Julie says. “He had sunflower seeds. Every time the conversation stopped or there was an awkward pause, he’d ask if I wanted some.”
That was spring 2012. A good omen: the sunflower is an ancient token of constancy and good fortune. By fall, Zach, a standout Stanford tight end, and Julie, captain of the winning U.S. women’s soccer squad at the Under-20 World Cup that summer, were an item.
“It’s always fun to talk to someone who is as driven in their sport as you are,” she says, recalling their earliest conversations. The couple just didn’t initially understand how driven the other was. “I never realized how good he was at his sport, and he didn’t realize how serious I was—and how far I wanted to go in my sport.”
Within a year of their relationship’s start, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles drafted Zach in the second round. Julie went on to play professional soccer for the Chicago Red Stars, helped the U.S. women’s national soccer team bring home the 2015 World Cup trophy, and was a 2016 Olympian. Thousands of miles, and sometimes oceans, have separated them. Keeping them together: Skype, a shared faith—each has a small cross tattoo—and a mutual understanding of the demands of professional athletes.
In February 2016, in the same stadium where they first shared conversation and handfuls of dusky-hulled sunflower seeds, Zach kneeled and asked her to marry him. Afterward on Twitter, he reported: “She said yes!! My best friend made this the best day of my life! #MrsErtz.”
While a reverence for tradition and religion—Zach was baptized the day before—guided many wedding day decisions, lead-up to the March 26, 2017, ceremony involved an unconventional detour. They participated in a magazine first, becoming the only couple photographed together for the annual ESPN The Magazine Body Issue, a clothes-free affair.
ESPN’s pages put action shots of muscular athletes front and center. Hockey players, tennis stars, and others have been captured in the buff, including six of Julie’s national team colleagues.“Growing up female, society says what you’re supposed to look like and do,” Johnston reflects. “Now I know what I need to do to make my body work its best. And to do that with Zach, who is the No. 1 supporter of me, made it all the more special.”