"My kids have a different upbringing than I had, but the love is the same – the belief in them is the same," Strahan tells PEOPLE

By Charlotte Triggs
Updated September 22, 2016 04:55 PM
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Andrew Hetherington

Michael Strahan is a former football star and a successful television personality – but more than anything, he’s one proud dad with a bustling brood living all around the country.

In this week’s PEOPLE cover story, the newly minted Good Morning America co-host opens up about life with his four kids: daughter Tanita, 24, Michael Jr., 21, whom he shares with ex-wife Wanda Hutchins, and twins Sophie and Isabella, 12, whom he shares with ex-wife Jean Muggli.

“My kids give me strength,” says Strahan, 44. “I love being with the kids. To me it’s all about family, now more than anything.”

Though Michael Jr. and Tanita were raised apart from Sophia and Isabella, all four are “very close, and I’m proud of that,” he says. “You worry how the kids will mix and blend, but brothers and sisters are brothers and sisters regardless of different mothers.”

When Strahan and Hutchins separated, Hutchins remained in Germany with Michael Jr. and Tanita.

“I think a lot of times when you split, people assume that the mother is supposed to take responsibility for the kids. But from day one, it was very important for me to be active, to be a part of their life,” says Strahan. “I was constantly on planes and phones. And it’s very hard – of course it’s hard with them being in Germany. But one thing I learned is, you make time for what you want to make time for.”

Watch full episodes of People Cover Story: Michael Strahan now at People/Entertainment Weekly Network. It’s free! Available on connected and mobile devices or just download the PEN app on your iOS or Android. Watch now at people.com/PEN.

Michael Jr. and Tanita ended up going to high school in Strahan’s hometown of Houston and are now both in college in Texas. Tanita has a degree from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and is currently studying art, while Michael is pursuing a degree in psychology – “which is great, ’cause after my career I’m gonna need it,” quips Strahan.

And Germany still holds a special place in their heart: Michael Jr., who lived there until age 11, tattooed the country’s eagle on his arm and says he’s “fluent but rusty” in the language.

Tanita, meanwhile, says growing up there helped keep them grounded.

“I’ve never been the type of person to be starstruck,” says Tanita. “Growing up in Germany, no one cared about stuff like that.”

RELATED VIDEO: What Did Michael Strahan Always Want to Be When He Grew Up?

Twins Sophie and Isabella, meanwhile, split their time between North Carolina and North Dakota.

“The twins live a crazy life. One time they flew out to D.C. and interviewed the First Lady for GMA,” says Strahan. “Then the next day their mom was sending me a video of them riding horses and splashing around in a muddy corn field.”

And Strahan didn’t let his split from Muggli get in the way of his relationship with the twins.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, we split, now I’m gonna write a check and send it to your mom every month, and Daddy will see you down the road,’ ” he says. “I’m not operating like that. Getting divorced is probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever gone through, but I learned a lot about myself.”

“When you’re a single father with 4-month-old kids, and you gotta be with them all the time, it taught me that there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he adds. “I can do it. I look back on that as one of the most fulfilling times of my life. And I look at my kids now and it makes me happy because I know it paid off in my relationship with them. ”

For much more from Michael Strahan – including where he stands with former co-host Kelly Ripa, his unique family and amazing life story – pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Strahan says he makes it a priority to spend time with all four of them, despite the geographical challenges.

“During their school year I get on a plane, and I fly to see my kids. And whenever they get a break, they come to New York,” he says. “The hardest part is when they leave – the energy in the house is not the same. It’s really sad. It’s a by-product of divorce. They’re not the first kids and I’m not the first adult to deal with it, but we’ve all handled it as well as we can.”

“My kids have a different upbringing than I had, but the love is the same,” he adds. “The belief in them is the same.”

With AURELIE CORINTHIOS