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Brent Jones had been retired from the NFL for a decade, was busy running an investment firm in the San Francisco area, had never coached a single snap of football in his life.
And then his phone rang.
It was Craig Bergman, football coach at Monte Vista High School in Danville, Calif.
“My daughters went to Monte Vista and played soccer, so I had a connection with the school,” Jones recalled Friday night, “and Craig called me and said he had a young kid moving up from the JV to the varsity, just a sophomore, but a big kid who had some athleticism and they thought he might become a pretty good tight end.”
Jones knows a little bit about playing tight end. He was a three-time all-pro, four-time Pro Bowl pick and three-time Super Bowl champion during his 11-year NFL career, all with the 49ers.
From 1987 through 1997, Jones caught 417 passes for 5,195 yards and 33 touchdowns, numbers only Shannon Sharpe and former Eagle Keith Jackson matched during that 10-year span.
When Bergman called, Jones had his hands full with Northgate Capital, the investment firm he founded with former NFL teammates Mark Harris and Tommy Vardell.
But he listened.
“Craig told me about the kid and asked if I wanted to coach tight ends at Monte Vista that year,” Jones said. “I’d been away from football for a while, but I took one look at the kid during spring drills, and it was just … wow.”
The kid was 16-year-old Zach Ertz.
“I instantly saw some phenomenal things in Zach,” Jones said. “The first thing that stood out was his size and his unbelievable hands. He was a basketball player, and he was very good at using his body and getting the ball up high.
“Here’s a kid who had never played varsity, was going into his junior year, and I looked at him and told him, ‘Zach, you’re going to play in the NFL.’”
That was the start of a mentoring relationship that’s continued through the rest of Ertz’s high school career, his career at Stanford and now the start of his NFL career.
The Eagles on Friday night selected Ertz with the 35th pick in the draft (see story), the third pick in the second round.
Jones’ prediction from the spring of 2007 had come true.
“It was one thing for me to see these qualities in Zach when he was a young kid, but he still had to put the work in to get to this point,” Jones said.
“We had that discussion a lot. I’d tell him, ‘You have the tools, now you’ve got to work really hard on this.’
“So we worked on routes, we worked on man, we worked on zone, we worked on refining his routes, we worked on not cutting corners, we worked on his discipline. We worked on everything I knew about playing tight end, and he was as coachable as any kid I’ve ever been around.
“Before the season started – and remember, he had never even played varsity – I told the other coaches, ‘This kid is going to develop into an unbelievable weapon. This guy is going to absolutely destroy people.
“He wanted to play basketball, but I told him, ‘You’re a tight end, you’re not a basketball player.’”
In his first game with the varsity, on Sept. 7, 2007, Ertz caught seven passes for 118 yards and a touchdown in a 37-21 loss to Logan High in Union City, Calif. In his second career game, six days later, he had three touchdowns in a 49-7 home win over West High of Tracy, Calif.
After five games, Ertz had 38 catches for 382 yards and seven touchdowns.
“The things I was seeing him do, these are things I had seen at the NFL level,” Jones said. “And he was doing them in high school.
“For a big man, he had so much fluidity to him. It was unbelievable. You see a lot of kids with talent at the high school level, but he was willing to do the work. Whatever it took.”
But Ertz’s season ended a month later when he suffered a broken wrist during a 27-0 win over Livermore on Monte Vista’s home field.
“He was devastated,” Jones said. “I told him, ‘Don’t hang your head, you’ve shown so much just in these five or six games, you’ll be able to pick whatever school you want.”
Jones contacted Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh and sent him some film of Ertz, and Harbaugh was blown away.
Even though Ertz had played just six games of varsity football, Harbaugh offered him a full ride.
“I don’t think I could ever thank Coach Jones enough,” Ertz said. “He’s done so much for me on and off the field and he’s been a huge mentor for me on and off the field as well.
“The things he taught me as a junior in high school, I’ve taken with me these past four years and I’m sure I’ll use them in Philadelphia as well.”
Jones coached only that one year at Monte Vista. He wanted to spend time the next fall with his daughter Courtney, who graduated from Monte Vista in the spring of 2008 and entered the University of North Carolina on a soccer scholarship.
Courtney Jones wound up playing on two NCAA Championship teams soccer teams and now plays for FC Kansas City in the National Women’s Soccer League.
But Jones and Ertz stayed in touch and worked together whenever their schedules allowed. Ertz caught 51 passes for 691 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Monte Vista and caught 112 passes for 1,434 yards and 15 TDs in three seasons at Stanford.
Now he’s an Eagle, the first tight end they’ve selected with one of the first 50 picks in the draft since Keith Jackson 25 years ago.
“The way the game’s being played now, the way tight ends are being used, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Zach surpasses all my numbers before he’s done,” Jones said. “I know he’s the best tight end in the country, and he’s going to have a tremendously successful career.
“But what I’d really love to see is Zach help the Eagles win a Super Bowl. That would be great to see. Coach [Chip] Kelly has had success wherever he’s been, and he’s got a great young man in Zach. I think he’s a perfect fit for what coach Kelly wants to do.”
Ertz admits now he was a little taken aback when one of the most decorated tight ends in NFL history told him that he’d one day be an NFL tight end.
Before he had played a single game of varsity football.
But it all makes sense now.
“I knew I could play in college when he was saying that stuff, but I don’t know if I believed what he was saying about going all the way to the NFL,” Ertz said.
“But he was right. I worked very hard on my craft over the past four years and I think all the predictions he made have come true. He saw something special in me, and it’s all come to fruition.”