Julie Ertz knows the importance of having a strong sports program in middle school — after all, that was when the athlete decided soccer was going to be her focus in life.
The professional soccer player has seen the benefits of sports first hand since she was a sporty child in middle school, she tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.
That’s why Ertz, 27, teamed up with Tony the Tiger’s “Mission Tiger,” an initiative from Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes to give middle school students access to sports, by supporting sports programs across the country with needs from big to small.
“I love all things that sports do — it unites people, it brings together teamwork, you learn confidence and leadership and a lot of things that I think are important at that time of age for kids,” the soccer player — who is married to 28-year-old Philadelphia Eagles tight end, Zach Ertz — says.
“For me it allows [the kids] to have a dream and be able to hopefully get amazing opportunities from that, and it’s fun,” she adds of the initiative’s importance.
“I think that the big thing is it’s fun, you learn in the end, you can create goals and especially in middle school you’re learning a bunch about yourself and that’s such a great time to help grow confidence.”
On Sept. 27, Julie and Mission Tiger helped these goals become a reality with a surprise visit to more than 260 students at Shields Middle School in Chicago.
The U.S. national soccer team star, who trains and plays nearby the school for the Chicago Red Stars, wanted to pick a school that she knew was in need.
The students were “so energetic” when she and Tony the Tiger charged into the middle school gym with an announcement of a $20,000 donation in Mission Tiger-donated funds and sports equipment, uniforms and more.
“Every one of the kids wanted to kick a soccer ball against Tony [the Tiger] and every single one had a team that they were a fan of when I asked if they were a soccer fan. Just to see that excitement and how much soccer can unite people it’s huge and that was really the fun part, I just didn’t want to leave,” she shares.
Now that the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is over, which the U.S. women’s national soccer team won for the second year in a row, the athlete — who was also just named to the Women’s World Team of the Year — is able to reflect on the special moment and begin to look forward.
“To be able to say you’re back to back world champions is just so incredible, considering there’s four years in between that you train for that,” she says.
“It was just a huge moment and to be able to have my family there to celebrate — they’ve been with me on this journey since day one — was truly a blessing. That was the most amazing part, to be able to be able to look in the stands after an amazing win as a team, to see my family there, who have been there supporting me since I’ve had this dream since middle school.”
While she’s already switching her mindset to the 2020 Olympics, Julie said she’s really looking forward to spending time with her NFL star husband in the off-season.
“Obviously during the world cup year I don’t get a ton [of time] with him, so any time I get with him is super special and I cherish every moment of that. I’m really excited to kind of be able to sit back, relax and enjoy some time with my husband,” she adds.
The athlete couple tied the knot in March 2017 at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara, California.
Julie met her future husband in 2012 through mutual friends while Zach was a player on Stanford University’s football team and she was on the soccer team at nearby Santa Clara.
After dating long-distance following his move to Philadelphia, Zach popped the question in February 2016.