For Audrey Soape, the father-daughter dance is a big social event and always a highlight of her year. This year, though, as it was drawing near, the 11-year-old was filled with dread.
Audrey’s father died in March. Just five weeks later, she also lost her grandfather, who would have been her stand-in date from her to the dance.
“We had such a horrible year, and she had been through so much,” said Audrey’s mother, Holly Soape.
Still, Audrey wanted to attend the dance at her local church with all her friends. About a month before the event, Soape started brainstorming date options for her daughter de ella. One man came to mind. It seemed unlikely that a National Football League player would say yes, but there was no harm in asking her daughter’s favorite sports star.
Soape sent an Instagram message a few days before Christmas to Anthony Harris, a Philadelphia Eagles player who is originally from Richmond, Virginia.
“I knew it was far-fetched and I didn’t know what I was expecting,” Soape said. “But I figured at least I would try.”
“Hey, this is kind of a crazy big ask, and please feel free to say no, but there’s this dance at the end of January,” Soape wrote to the NFL player, explaining her daughter’s predicament. “Is there any way you would consider doing this?”
To her shock, he replied right away. Given that the football season was still in motion and there was a chance his team might make it to the playoffs, Harris couldn’t immediately commit.
“If we don’t make it to the playoffs, I would be open to that,” he wrote back to Soape.
This wasn’t the first time Harris and Soape had corresponded. They started communicating periodically over Instagram in March 2020.
Soape and her two children live in Pflugerville, Tex., just north of Austin, but she is originally from Minnesota. The Soape family has long been a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, and their favorite player is Harris – who played for the NFL team for six seasons before signing a contract with the Eagles in March 2021.
Soape spontaneously sent him a message on social media one day to let him know that she and her family are big fans and that they wanted to send their prayers and support amid the pandemic. The last thing she expected was a reply.
“But he responded, which was kind of incredible,” Soape recalled.
Every few months, she would write to Harris to check in and let him know that her family was watching from home and rooting for him. Most often, to her delight, he would respond.
In an interview with Washington PostHarris said he was touched by her support.
“To continue those efforts really showed that they appreciated not only who I was as a player, but also what I was doing as a person,” said Harris, 30. “This is somebody who never met me in person; this is somebody who has just been following my career and not only paying attention to what I do on the field, but also what I do off the field.”
For her part, Soape said she found “all his posts really down to earth” on social media, and “he just felt really personable and relatable to me.”
“He seemed so real and so genuine, and it really made me feel like he was more of a person that we could get to know,” Soape continued.
She decided to send him a message the day after her husband died in a tragic accident, hoping he would send back a word of condolence. Harris, who was raised by a single mother, wanted to return the support Soape had given him over the years.
“I will absolutely pray for you,” Harris wrote to her. “Please let me know if you need anything.”
Soape said she never expected to take Harris up on his offer, but for her daughter’s sake, she figured it was worth a shot.
When it became clear in mid-January that the football season was over for the Eagles, Harris kept his word. He told Soape that he would fly across the country to accompany Audrey to the father-daughter dance at the Fellowship Church in Round Rock, Texas.
Harris said he was moved by Soape’s invitation and recognized her as “a mother doing what she can to provide for her family.” He wanted to try to make a sad situation better, in some small way.
When Harris confirmed that he would be there, “I was really blown away,” Soape said. “It was just disbelief.”
Harris also insisted on buying Audrey a brand-new dress and shoes to wear that night, and he arranged for her to get her hair and makeup done.
“He spared no expense whatsoever, and he just wanted to make sure that she felt special and cared about,” Soape said.
“I wanted to try to make it a very unique experience,” Harris echoed. “I wanted her to feel like a princess.”
He also wanted to alleviate some costs, as “deaths could come with some financial burden as well,” he said. “I thought that this would take another load off of what the family was going through.”
On January 28, Harris arrived at the Soape’s home to pick up Audrey for the dance. She stepped outside, wearing her new floral dress with tan heels, to meet her date de ella for the first time.
“I couldn’t believe that this was happening,” Audrey said. In equal measure, “I was nervous and excited to meet him.”
The feelings were mutual: “I think I might have been a little more nervous than she was,” Harris confessed with a laugh.
But he did everything possible to make Audrey feel comfortable around him, by chatting with her and trying to relate to her as best he could.
His efforts worked. Before long, “it didn’t feel like I was with someone that was in the NFL,” Audrey said. “It felt like I was with a normal person that was my friend.”
The duo danced and laughed for several hours that night, and they also participated in a scavenger hunt.
“We had fun. That was what it was all about,” Harris said.
Soape volunteered to chaperone at the event so that she could spend some time with her favorite football player, too.
“He had such a sense about him where if he could tell she was feeling nervous or uncomfortable, he would just break the ice,” Soape said. “He really just engaged with her the entire night and made sure she never felt alone.”
Plus, she added, “when you see someone show up for your kid to make them feel special, to make them feel unique, it was just so unbelievably touching for me.”
For Harris, ensuring Audrey felt special and supported was his top priority that evening.
“I just wanted to try to help her cope through that experience without her father being there,” he said. “I had people in my life, sometimes complete strangers, that were very supportive of me, so I wanted to do that for her.”
Harris hopes his presence at the dance demonstrated to Audrey and others that “you can one day potentially be a support system to someone else,” he said. “You don’t have to know somebody to help them.”