As a young girl growing up in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, Juliana Zavala sought out athletics as a safe haven. Neither her parents – both of whom immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico – nor her five siblings gravitated to sports like she did.
But growing up in an area surrounded by gangs and peers who tried to encourage her to join them, Zavala's parents kept strict guidelines to keep her and her siblings out of trouble.
Zavala had two options: go directly home after school or find a purposeful, safe activity. She chose the latter and fell in love with soccer.
Because financial limitations prevented her from joining a club league or receiving the necessary equipment, she never played the sport in an organized setting until her freshman year of high school.
Zavala still remembers the feeling of lacing up real soccer cleats for the first time, stepping onto the field with a team and feeling a true sense of community with girls her age.
Those are memories that stuck with her during high school, into her collegiate playing days at Northwestern State University in Louisiana and all the way through her return home and during her career as the senior manager of elementary sports at Chicago Public League.
Those memories are also what inspired her to lead the charge in introducing and growing girls flag football in high schools around Chicago and, later, throughout state of Illinois, which culminated in her earning the Bears' Inspire Change Changemaker Award.
"If you asked when I was a little kid, 'What am I gonna do in my life,' I would've never in my mind said 'You're gonna build a new sport for young girls,'" Zavala said. "And I feel like this is my why in life, to be able to bring a new sport like this for the girls."
Before COVID-19 hit in 2020, Zavala received a call from Bears manager of youth and high school football Gustavo Silva, who prepared a detailed pitch on starting a girls flag football league in Chicago Public Schools.
Not even five minutes into the conversation, Zavala said 'Stop.' Without having to think twice, she was on board and immediately went to work alongside Silva and the Bears to bring the sport to Chicago.
Originally the plan was for the inaugural season to kick off in the fall of 2020 with six or eight teams. The pandemic forced the program to pause for a year, but Zavala kept pushing forward, accumulating 22 teams that wanted to participate in 2021.
A successful first year led to a massive Year 2 expansion that featured nearly 50 CPL teams along with the addition of six Western Suburban Conference teams and eight Rockford area teams. For the 2023 season, over 100 teams participated across eight leagues throughout the state. Now, the sights are set on girls flag football becoming an IHSA-sanctioned sport in 2024.
"Juliana has been a tremendous partner for the Bears on the girls flag football journey," Silva said. "She has been a passionate advocate for every girl that is interested in playing flag football and she is a champion for the cause of getting flag football sanctioned by the Illinois High Schools Association.
"We would not have experienced as much success as we have growing girls flag football this quickly in Chicago and Illinois if not for Juliana. She has inspired thousands of young ladies to use the sport of flag football to better themselves, and Juliana's impact is immeasurable, as it will be far and wide for generations of girls to come."
The tireless work of both Zavala and Silva has led to more than 2,500 high school girls finding new families and helping discover their place in the athletics community.
"I'm just thrilled to know that there's girls out there that have a place to belong, a community for the girls to come together," Zavala said. "We have girls that have never played sports, and then we have multi-sport athletes that are coming to play a new sport. And the multi-sport athletes say, 'I would have never met my new teammates. I would have never had a friendship if I didn't get myself out of the box.'
"To me, it's beautiful. It's beautiful to see that girls are just doing new things, and to be behind that, that's just exciting to see."
While Zavala takes tremendous pride in the growth of the girls flag football statewide, feeling, hearing and seeing the impact the sport made on the inner city is what fuels her each day.
"Especially in the city of Chicago, we needed it after COVID," Zavala said. "There's so many changes that happened emotionally with student-athletes, with kids. It's done such a great thing in the city. I'm so happy that we started there.
"That's where it should have started, and we've seen so many things happen and we've seen a lot of girls that have never played a sport come out for the first time. Now they're eager to try new sports in their school. They feel they've built the spirit in the school and the community, and that's what it's all about."
What makes Zavala so special is how she can relate to the girls' experiences in Chicago not just in sports, but with life, friendships, family relationships and education.
As a young Hispanic girl, Zavala always fielded questions and concerns about sports from her parents, who only wanted to protect her. Now, Zavala is serving as a resource for girls who are experiencing similar situations, helping talk with their parents about the benefits and community flag football brings.
At a Bears all-staff Inspire Change meeting Thursday, Zavala was surprised by two CPL girls flag football products — Lane Tech senior Sadia Rodriguez and current Cottey College student-athlete Karla Martinez Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, who was one of the first three female players from Illinois to earn college scholarships for girls flag football, spoke about Zavala's influence on her journey to playing after high school.
"Ms. Zavala actually helped me be able to go to college in the first place," Rodriguez said. "My parents were not going to let me go out of state. They wanted me to stay here and I [would] have been able to play soccer [here] instead. But for me, I was more confident in flag football, I felt more in place.
" When Ms. Zavala visited me at my high school, she talked with my mom. She told her own story [about] how her own mother almost didn't let her go for her dreams. And my mom saw that she had to open up to the possibilities of what would happen if [she] let [me] go."
That experience is why Zavala has dedicated almost four years of her life to establishing and nurturing girls flag football and the players who have fallen in love with it.
While sports helped shape Zavala as a child and brought her to what she views as her life's purpose, her experiences always lacked one thing – female leaders.
"I had great mentors — really great mentors that guided me and showed me the ropes," Zavala said. "But I've always had male mentors. I've never had a female mentor. To me, that's kind of what I want to do. I want to be that female mentor for these girls to kind of let them know, 'Look, I'm in a position right now in sports administration. I work for CPS and I'm able to help support you.'"
Zavala's mentorship and contagious spirit expands beyond the city of Chicago. Willowbrook High School senior Emma Anderlik formally met Zavala for the first time at this year's girls flag football state championships. Anderlik had of course heard of and seen Zavala around before, but never had the chance to sit down with her.
But when Anderlik witnessed Zavala receive the Bears Inspire Change Changemaker Award at the state championships, she was in awe.
"I was just amazed because a woman receiving such an award is absolutely amazing," Anderlik said. "I think being surrounded with a bunch of other flag players in that environment just made it feel really magical. You don't see that every day. You don't get to be in the presence of somebody who's awarded that every day."
Since that day, Anderlik and Zavala have "at least 30-minute conversations" every time they see each other. The rising girls flag star added she thinks about Zavala's words and wisdom all the time.
"Mentally, I feel like I connect with her so much better than a man, probably because she is also one of the first," Anderlik said. "She's understanding this for the first time as well with us girls. So having her as that role model feels very supportive."
Zavala doesn't typically consider herself an emotional person. But on Oct. 28 at the Walter Payton Center just before the final day of the state championships, Zavala cried tears of joy in front of her family, fellow league general managers and around 100 girls whose lives she has impacted.
Those emotions bubbled up when Silva stood up in front of the crowd, listed off all of Zavala's accomplishments and surprised her with the Bears' 2023 Inspire Change Changemaker Award.
"I saw my whole entire family and I just lost it," Zavala said following the surprise. "This is a moment that I'll never forget, and it's a special moment, one of my favorite moments in my life. I always talk to the girls when they're seniors and say "how are you going to leave your legacy?" To me, this is a moment in my life that this is how I'll leave my legacy — building a new sport with Gus and [having] the support of everyone else in the community.
"I still can't believe it. I kept telling my family 'pinch me, because I don't think I received this.' And they're like 'yeah you did, you deserve it.'"
While the honor came as a shock to Zavala, no one else inside the Walter Payton Center was surprised. The award recognizes individuals in each NFL market making a difference in their community across Inspire Change's four focus areas: education, economic advancement, police-community relations and criminal justice reform.
Along with the admiration Zavala receives from the girls flag football players, the respect she's earned from her peers speaks volumes.
Lane Tech coach Caroline Schwartz said Zavala "is not only a mentor to all of the girls that play flag football, but all of us woman coaches that are a part of this."
Willowbrook girls flag coach Rachel Karos felt "it was a no-brainer" that Zavala receive this year's Changemaker Award, calling her "an inspiration" and "a pioneer."
"I think she's brought and helped pave the way for female athletes to not just find a team to be part of," Karos said, "but almost every girl I've talked to that's joined a flag football team has also found a new family. And that couldn't have been done without Juliana. She's been really inspiring. I know my girls talk about her all the time and how inspired they are by her and how they look up to her. Really the hope is our girls go on to have jobs that help do the same thing for others, and they all look up to what Juliana has done for us."
Zavala will be honored at Sunday's Inspire Change game against the Cardinals and will receive a $10,000 donation from the NFL Foundation, paid directly to a non-profit of her choice. Zavala's plan is to use the money to for girls flag football scholarships.
Zavala also spoke with the entire Bears staff Thursday, sharing her story and serving as an inspiration to the organization. Bears President & CEO Kevin Warren, general manager Ryan Poles and Silva all shared kind words about Zavala's impact in the Chicagoland community.
After the event, Zavala spent more time with Bears chairman George H. McCaskey and Warren, who gifted her a customized Bears jersey.
Receiving an award on such a large scale and being honored by the team she grew up loving has been an overwhelming yet incredible experience for Zavala.
While she typically stays behind the scenes, the Inspire Change Changemaker Award is one she "really took to heart." Zavala got herself a case for the football she received and put it in her office as a constant reminder of her why.
"I never have pictured myself as a changemaker," Zavala said. "I mean, a girl that grew up in Little Village, I never in my mind dreamt that, 'hey, this is my goal, to be the changemaker.' I'm just someone that likes to help and serve and take it day by day. 'Dominate the Day' is what I say, and we've been dominating the day for the last three years. To get this award, I'm really, really honored. This is one that I would definitely put in the books and share with my kids."