By Diane White McNaughton
When a helicopter carrying L.A. Lakers phenom Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers plummeted to earth in January, the tragedy triggered a national outpouring of grief from basketball fans and families everywhere.
It also sparked a viral craze among proud papas who took to social media in force, declaring their pride in being a “girl dad,” like the basketball legend who joyfully embraced his four daughters.
The hashtag “girldad” rapidly became the number one trending topic on Twitter, with celebrities, sports figures and other dedicated dads sharing it hundreds of thousands of times.
In the spirit of the oft-billed “8th Wonder of the World,” Harrisburg-area dads are also channeling their inner Kobe and coaching their little ladies in sports, sweeping their tresses into ponytails, twirling in their ballet recitals, singing along to “Frozen,” and learning their cheerleader routines.
Nashon Walker of Hummelstown celebrates it all. As the father of four girls himself, and the founder of an all-girls skills development school—RISE Academy—Walker’s life and parenting style has been inspired by the NBA great.
“Being a native of Philadelphia by way of Williamsport, my teenage life was very close to Kobe’s,” Walker says. “He was only one year ahead of me. We played at the same playground in Ardmore, when I would visit my uncle. My high school basketball team competed against him. We knew of Kobe way before he was ‘Black Mamba.’ He was special to us all and played such an inspirational role in our lives not just as an NBA player but as a high school standout from my city.”
Walker’s link to Kobe far transcends Bryant’s devastating dunks and signature fadeaway jump shots.
“I identify with him so much because we both have four daughters and have a tremendous passion for girls’ basketball and teaching them the fundamentals at a young age,” Walker says. “A year ago, I started the first ‘all-girls’ year-round mentoring and training basketball academy in Central Pennsylvania. One of our main focuses is building confidence in young girls and our academy has grown by leaps and bounds.”
Popular sports’ fixture Dave Brixius, owner of Explosive Sports Performance with his wife Ashley, and wealth whiz Brad Sanders, CFP, CRPC, of Stonebridge Wealth Management, are also local “girl dads,” par excellence.
Research and experience show that fathers are one of the most formative role models in a daughter’s life, giving them confidence and self-esteem that endures throughout their life.
Unlike many proud papas from older generations, today’s dads are no longer spectators in their daughters’ lives. They have come off the bench and are eager to run with the ball. They change diapers, give baths, shovel spoonfuls of sweet potatoes into miniature mouths, sip tea from undersized cups at under-sized tables, and calm midnight cries.
It’s no wonder the first words out of most babies’ mouths are “Da-da.”
According to Professor Michael Austin, editor of Fatherhood –Philosophy for Everyone: The Dao of Daddy, dads have a singular role in shaping a daughter’s self-esteem, self-image, confidence and opinion of men.
Just watch an emotional father dancing with his daughter at her wedding reception, and you can literally “see” the bond between bride and dad.
Behavioral experts say that the best dads teach and model honesty and integrity, and do not hesitate to apologize for their mistakes. Walker agrees.
“Admitting and verbally confessing to your daughter when you’re wrong is extremely important….Our girls thrive off our words of encouragement,” Walker says.
Experts say strong girl-dads give sincere verbal encouragement, and are a consistent presence in a girl’s life. They are alert and sensitive to a girl’s feelings, listen to her thoughts, and take an active interest in her hobbies.
Our local dads fill that bill.
Walker often uses the hashtag “Addictedtoparenting” when he proudly posts photographs of Taja, Mia, Ariana and Amani on his Facebook page.
“Our family is a sports family,” Walker says. Besides basketball, the Walker wonders compete in track and gymnastics, and often train together.
Taja, a junior at Bishop McDevitt and a Mid-Penn/Pennlive Allstar, has garnered multiple college offers and serves as a role model for her younger sisters.
Mia is also a gifted basketball player, a “people person” and a fashion aficionado. At 5’8″ as a sixth grader, Walker calls her “our intellectual” who aspires to become both a doctor and a lawyer.
Ariana “is the boss of the house,” Walker says. At eight, she has a “mature soul” who serves as “the general” in the family.
Amani, the family jokester, also loves movies and playing hide-and-seek with Daddy.
Each time Walker and his wife heard “It’s a girl” in the delivery room, it came as a surprise.
“Actually, I always envisioned myself having girls since I was in college,” he says. “I was very excited to have my daughters given the fact that I come from a family that was always male-dominated.
“My wife (Tiana) and I had the mentality that whatever God gave us would be a blessing.”
Beside intense training sessions for basketball, the Walkers share movie nights and plan special one-on-one days. They have fond memories of Disney World, Chocolate World and a tournament in Ocean City, Maryland (yes, they won!).
In fact, “really, we do everything together,” he says.
He never envisioned himself getting his fingernails painted by his 4-year old, doing hair, and babysitting dolls.
“The biggest thing is setting aside my personal aspirations in order to give more attention and focus to the development of my daughters, but absolutely loving the process,” Walker says.
“The bond between a dad and a daughter is heavenly. It’s so special that words aren’t adequate enough to describe. It’s just right. Sons may be the pride of their fathers, but daughters are their crown. It’s a love so unique and so beautiful,” Walker adds.
When he asked his girls what lessons he has taught them, they offered this: “You have to stay teachable, have self-initiative and trust God. Stay focused, don’t be afraid to be you and do your best to be as consistent as possible.”
His advice to new girl-dads: “Please don’t undervalue your daughter just because you didn’t have a boy, and don’t allow anyone else to do it as well. Our daughters will soon become the mothers, leaders and world changers that we as sons so passionately adore. Our daughters are gifts from above.”
Investing in Kindness
Brad Sanders, CFP®, CRPC®, of Susquehanna Township, embraces the girl-dad life with daughters Allie, Caitlin, and Alaina. As a financial advisor at Stonebridge Financial Group in Wormleysburg, his first and best investment lies in his wife Colleen and their three blonde dynamos.
“All of them love music,” Sanders says. “I have gotten them into some country and classic rock, but they really like songs from Disney movies, especially the Descendants movies.”
They also love playing tag and “tackle,” enjoying Hersheypark as a family with Mom, and making other people laugh.
Allie is finishing kindergarten and has a musical heart. Already, she is showing signs of being a competitive runner, like her athletic parents. At six, she often runs laps around her neighborhood with her mom.
“Caitlin loves to read,” Sanders jokes, “even though she can’t read yet. She will sit down with a book and make up a long and involved story and eagerly tell it to anyone who will listen (or nobody if she doesn’t have an audience.)” Like Allie, she loves to sing and dance.
She is the arbiter of all things fair in the family, and even makes sure that snacks are divided equally.
Alaina loves building towers with blocks, eating snacks, and playing on the swings at the playground.
“She dislikes being left out and isn’t shy about letting us know how angry she is when she isn’t able to do something that her sisters can do,” Sanders says.
For each birth, the Sanders’ knew a girl was on the way. They decided they did not need a surprise in the delivery room, since “We figured we were in for plenty of surprises once they arrived!
“Luckily we weren’t aiming for boys because it doesn’t seem like I make them! For Allie and Caitlin, I was very excited with the news, and for Alaina, there was a mix of joy and some relief because I was so used to having little ladies in the house,” Sanders says.
Brad and his threesome can often be found singing by their basement karaoke bar, playing outside on the playground, going for walks, watching movies, listening to music, and going swimming.
He never envisioned himself bypassing classic rock for singing along to Disney princesses, but he is all in.
“I’m sure if you check back in when the girls are approaching teenage years, I’ll be getting into some really unchartered territory,” Sanders says.
Sanders works to “be very involved with who they become as people. We want to raise girls who respect others as well as themselves,” Sanders says. “My wife and I try to instill good values in our girls and make sure they know that it is important to always be kind and give their best effort in everything they do.”
“It’s an unconditional love that you feel from the first time you hold them. It is amazing to me how much you can tell about their unique personalities from as early as a few months old. When we brought Allie home, I thought my heart couldn’t have been fuller, and it got fuller again with Caitlin and then again with Alaina.”
When the girls ask him, “Is tomorrow Saturday?” because they know that means a whole glorious day with Dad as their playmate, he knows he is having an impact.
His favorite memories with his tow-headed trio are “too many to count, but when they each were able to say ‘I love you’ back to us has been very special to me.”
His advice to new “girl-dads:” “Make sure your girls know they are special and show them through your words and actions that they are loved for who they are.
“If you’ve ever heard the song by George Strait, “I Saw God Today”, that pretty much sums up the feeling I’ve been blessed to have three times over,” Sanders says.
“Got my face pushed up against the nursery glass
She’s sleeping like a rock
My name on her wrist
Wearing tiny pink socks
She’s got my nose
She’s got her Mama’s eyes
My brand new baby girl
She’s a miracle
I saw God today.”
Dave Brixius, the charismatic owner of Explosive Sports Performance in Lower Paxton Township, is not only the force behind some of the area’s most elite athletes: he is a devoted uber-dad to Alexandria and Gabby.
As a former trainer for the Harrisburg Heat indoor soccer team, the Messiah College men’s and women’s soccer teams, and the Harrisburg City Islanders, he knows that excellence is all about mind and body. Clearly, despite his toned physique, his heart is his most exercised muscle.
“Coach Brix,” says Alexandria likes soccer, running, art, crafts, snuggling, and reading. She is not a fan of her swimming lessons.
Gabby loves being creative, being outside, swimming, going to her grandparents’ house, and dislikes being told what to do.
He and his wife Ashley didn’t know they were having girls. They waited until each infant was born to discover whether they would be dressing their new arrival in pink or blue.
As someone dedicated to making area athletes bigger, stronger, and faster, Brixius says, “I did want a boy with my first daughter, but the main thing I wanted was healthy, vibrant kids when they were born.”
He and his little ladies enjoy working out in the gym, tickle fighting, playing football in the back room, reading, hiking, hanging with mom Ashley, and playing outside.
Like Walker and Sanders, he never saw himself putting their hair in a tie or doing their hair.
Though not a Kobe devotee, he says his goal as a dad was “always to be the best person I could be for them. Help them when they needed me, be there to listen and also discipline when they need it.”
Brixius is taking the long view when he consider his daughters’ lives.
“The bond between a dad and daughter should be to show her how she should be treated when she grows up. How a man should treat her with respect and talk with her on the same level. Show her how great she can and should be. That is a dad’s job,” says Brixius.
“The key lessons are that you can accomplish pretty much whatever you want in life. That they should be leaders and never follow the crowd just because everyone is doing it. They should treat people with respect and also that they should get that respect in return. I also teach them that not everything revolves around them. They need to think of others and help where they can,” he added.
His favorite memories of his girls usually have their gym as the backdrop because they are adorable fixtures in their gym, and popular with fellow gym-goers.
He remembers them “working out when they were 2-years-old doing box drills and other exercises. My other favorite memories are my daughters reading to me for the first time and going to their first soccer practice.”
His advice for new girl-dads is simple: “Just have fun! Nurture them but let them be tough as well. Make sure they can stand up for themselves that they do not need someone always there to take care of them. Let them know that they are loved.
“My girls and my wife are my everything. I would not be the man I am today without them. They complete me and have made me a better man, husband, father and person. They are the best,” Brixius says.
As Father’s Day is celebrated in new, socially distant ways throughout central Pennsylvania, these devoted dads have found gifts that cannot be ordered on Amazon or wrapped in a box. Their love for their little women hearken back to the words of Kobe Bryant: “My parents are my backbone. Still are. They’re the only group that will support you if you score zero or if you score 40.”
And that unconditional love has catapulted so many local “girl-dads” into the Fathering Hall of Fame and into the hearts of their tiny dancers and future champions.