Zach Ertz and Jason Witten embraced after the Eagles-Cowboys game that ended the regular sason. Witten handed Ertz his jersey. It was the last game Witten would ever play. It was the first time he had ever given another player the uniform off his back.
"It put a lot of things in perspective," Ertz said. "I didn't know that I was the only guy to ever get his jersey."
Witten, 36, retired last month after 15 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He will be an analyst on ESPN's Monday Night Football, and will likely one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. After Witten made the news official, Ertz wrote a heartfelt note on Twitter explaining his admiration and appreciation for Witten. Ertz included a photo of himself holding Witten's dirtied, game-worn No. 82 jersey with a message to Ertz written in the "8." Ertz wrote, "from now on, when you look up the definition of Tight End, it should be a picture of this jersey and nothing else."
Witten saw Ertz's tweet and explained that in 15 seasons, he gave his jersey away only one time.
"Ertz earned my respect – not only one of the best all-around at the position in our game, but handles the business the right way," Witten wrote. "The impact we have on others – it matters."
Witten's tweet resonated with Ertz, who didn't realize the significance of Witten's giving him the jersey. They've since been in touch again and plan to get together this offseason to watch film.
For whatever bad blood is supposed to exist between the Eagles and the Cowboys because of their rivalry, it has never interfered with Ertz's reverence for Witten. As a teenager in Northern California, Ertz shifted his focus from basketball to football because of the potential he exhibited as a tight end. Although the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders played nearby, Ertz wasn't as loyal to teams as he was to players. And Witten was the player he emulated.
"I just loved the way…any pressure situation, it seemed they were getting him the ball," Ertz said. "He was never the fastest guy. But he was always open. And there was always a ton of separation. And the way he approached the game, how intense he was, the way he demanded the ball – not in a selfish way, but he understood the work that he put in to get to that point. And [when] the game was on the line, he wanted the opportunity to get the ball. It resonated with me in a lot of ways."
Sound familiar? Ertz said all season he wanted to be the player the Eagles targeted on third down and in the red zone. So on third down and in the red zone in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Ertz caught the go-ahead touchdown to help bring a Lombardi Trophy to Philadelphia.
Ertz originally connected with Witten in 2014 through Ross Tucker, an NFL broadcaster who used to play for the Cowboys. Through the years, Ertz has tried to find Witten before games to thank him for the influence Witten has had on Ertz's career. Although Witten did not announce his retirement until after the season, Ertz understood that his opportunities to play against Witten were nearing an end. Ertz wore a microphone during the Eagles' November game in Dallas and the Eagles' website captured Ertz approaching Witten and telling him, "You're my idol." Before the final game of the season, Witten shared with Philadelphia reporters how much he respects Ertz.
"I think he's just an exceptional player. Love how he plays the game, the position," Witten said. "It's good to see him having the year that he's had and develop into his own, one of the best in the game. I appreciate the admiration that he's had; he's shared that with me. It's certainly what I try to do, so young players can see it, and I appreciate that he's looked up to it."
Ertz didn't realize that Witten would back up those words with an honor he had not given to any other player. Even though Ertz is 27, married, and a Pro Bowl tight end who's caught a game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, a part of him is still the teenager in Alamo, Calif., who admired his favorite player.
"Just the way he carried himself could have such big impact on someone," Ertz said. "As athletes, just looking at it from an outside perspective, it's really remarkable the impact you could have on somebody that you have no idea."