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From the memories to the work ethic, Zach Ertz departs Philly as an all-time Eagles great | Mike Sielski

Ertz understood the core principle of Philadelphia sports: If you acknowledge your mistakes and you try at all times, we’ll love you forever.

Zach Ertz dives for the end zone over the Patriots' Devin McCourty late in Super Bowl LII, scoring the biggest touchdown in Eagles history.
Zach Ertz dives for the end zone over the Patriots' Devin McCourty late in Super Bowl LII, scoring the biggest touchdown in Eagles history.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

There is a succession of photos from Super Bowl LII that symbolize Zach Ertz’s excellence with the Eagles, one arrested instant after another. The shots were all taken within a few seconds, late in the game, after Ertz had caught, in stride, a perfect slant pass from Nick Foles and after he had leaped toward the end zone and as he was extending the football toward the goal line, desperate to put the Eagles ahead again, his arms going from bent at their elbows to straight and taut like pulley ropes. His body, as if an arrow in flight, was parallel to the U.S. Bank Stadium turf as he stretched himself forward, and after the ball crossed the goal line and popped out of Ertz’s hands as he fell, he reached up and grabbed it again.

The sequence is a perfect depiction of maximum effort at a big moment in a big game — of the player Ertz was throughout his eight years with the Eagles, before they traded him Friday to the Arizona Cardinals for corner Tay Gowan and a fifth-round draft pick, and of the player people in time understood him to be.

He goes down as an all-time Eagle: second in franchise history in receptions, fifth in receiving yards, seventh in receiving touchdowns, responsible not merely for the team’s only Super Bowl-winning score but for a clutch catch that led to it: fourth-and-1 from the Eagles’ 45-yard line, taking a tough lick from Patriots safety Duron Harmon but holding on to the ball anyway.

Those are the moments of Ertz’s career here, and no one who follows or cheers for the Eagles will forget them, and because of those moments and memories, it didn’t seem right to have Ertz’s final game be Thursday night’s loss to the Buccaneers. Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations, had told Ertz on Tuesday that a trade would likely be coming down soon.

“It was special for him to come out on a nationally televised game, in front of our fans, as a captain, be introduced,” Roseman said, “and I get chills just thinking about it.”

» READ MORE: Images of Zack Ertz's long career as a Philadelphia Eagle

So Ertz went into the game knowing that it would likely be his last, but few in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field did. There was no fanfare for him, no acknowledgment from those fans who had grown to appreciate him and whom he, in turn, had come to appreciate. Just a long, hard night for a team that was generally overmatched against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions, a team that is in store for a long, hard season. It took the sight of Ertz’s walking toward the Eagles’ locker room after the game, stopping just before he entered, and bowing his head outside the door to recognize that the rumors of his departure that had been swirling since January were finally true.

There are only so many Eagles who would have deserved a more celebratory sendoff. Ertz is one. Put aside his marvelous 2017-18 postseason and the best season an Eagles tight end has ever had: his 116-catch, 1,163-yard 2018. He should teach a course for professional athletes in how to embrace and be embraced by Philadelphia.

From his early years with the Eagles, when his production wasn’t quite meeting the expectations accompanying his standing as a second-round draft pick, to the fallout from a missed block against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016, a mortal sin in the eyes of so demanding a fan base, he became the model for any sports star who wants to thrive here: self-reflective but not lost in his own mind and ego, never shy to say that he was chasing greatness and mature enough to realize that it was the pursuit, not its end, that counted most.

“I don’t know if you remember,” he said after a training-camp practice in 2019, “but when I was drafted, I said I wanted to be the best to ever play, ever, and then the best tight end that Philadelphia has ever had. Each offseason, I try to find something to kind of nitpick and find ways to get better. It’s almost like a game within a game.”

Ben Simmons and Carson Wentz would have saved themselves a lot of headaches had they understood what Ertz did — a core principle of Philadelphia sports, the implicit agreement that fans make with any athlete here, whether he or she is a star or a bench-warmer: If you acknowledge your mistakes and you try at all times, we’ll love you forever.

“When I was young,” he said Friday, “I think a lot of young players struggle with this: You’re told for so long how good you are. In high school, coming out, you’re typically a pretty good player, a big-time recruit. You have college coaches telling you how good you are. You get to college; you’re not great early in your career. You get to the end of your college career; everyone’s telling you how great you are. And you kind of, sort of expect it.

“In society today, I think a lot of people want to be told how good they are. And it’s just not the case. It’s not reality. It’s OK to be told that you’re not playing great. It’s OK to be told that you need to be better. And in reality, no one should have to tell you that as a professional athlete. I can tell myself if I played well, if I didn’t play well. I can tell you exactly how the fans are going to react, based on how I played. I know.

“For me, you can’t take it for more than what it is. These people love the Eagles. They love their players. This city loves their players. And they want to see us succeed as much or more than we do.”

He will have a much better chance at success this season with the Cardinals – 5-0 and in first place in the NFC West — than he would have had staying here. At 30, he can still be a weapon in an offense with Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. What he gets, most of all, is the opportunity to make one more memory in his career, for himself. He’ll share the ones he made here with those who live here for a long time.