Pam Askew wanted her daughter to have an example of healthy, strong male leadership at an early age. The single mother turned to military academy football.
Simone Askew spent fall Saturdays in the car with her mother driving an hour from northern Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland, to watch the Midshipmen play. She spent summers attending camp at the Naval Academy and paid visits to the U.S. Military Academy. She and her mother attended the Army-Navy game every year, when Simone would watch enthralled at the precision and splendor of cadets and midshipmen marching onto the field in formation before kickoff.
"I had never seen something like that," Askew said. "I asked my mom, 'What can I do to one day be in charge of that?' It was a fairly artificial attraction, but it sparked my interest for sure."
Saturday, the day after her 21st birthday, military drums will begin their deafening tattoo before the Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Simone Askew will perform one final check of Army's 4,400-member Corps of Cadets. Then she will lead them onto the turf in the ceremonial "March On" as first captain, the first African-American woman to hold the highest student position at the U.S. Military Academy.
"It's a little surreal," Askew said earlier this week in a phone interview from her office at West Point, "to acknowledge the significance of everything that's happened to me this semester."
The 118th meeting between Army (8-3) and Navy (6-5) marks the first time in years that Army holds the momentum heading into one of college football's richest rivalries. Last season the Black Knights snapped the Midshipmen's 14-year win streak, the longest by either side in series history, and are looking to cap their strongest campaign in decades this year by winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1996.
It will also be a powerful recruiting tool, just as it was for Askew and many others.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo has heard from countless football players that the Army-Navy game made an impression at a young age, and Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, who set the program record with 1,472 rushing yards this season, said watching Army lose to Navy as a high school junior made him want to attend West Point.
"I was like, 'No, they should've won!' Bradshaw said last week. "So immediately after watching I was like, 'I've definitely got to go to West Point and do whatever I can to help that team win.' "
Army Athletic Director Boo Corrigan notes that the Army-Navy game is a meaningful introduction to the military for those who may not have familial connections.
"It's an entree into the academy," Corrigan said. " . . . You see the cadets in the stands, and you see them having fun . . . You see them and who they are and what they look like and you say, 'I can see myself maybe doing that.' You see the cadets playing the game and they're not playing the game any different, they're not playing with one arm behind their back."
To Askew, the Army-Navy game was the ultimate display of military splendor, camaraderie and athletics. In high school, she was student body president and homecoming queen, but Askew said it was athletics that captured her heart. She grew up a sports fan and rowed crew, played volleyball and basketball and ran track at Fairfax (Virginia) High.
She liked that the military academies placed value in the lessons learned from sports more so than a civilian university. At the Naval Academy and the Military Academy, midshipmen and cadets are required to participate in some sort of athletic club or extracurricular. Askew rowed crew for her first three years at the academy before she became first captain.
Corrigan, Bradshaw and Army Coach Jeff Monken all raved about Askew at the annual Army-Navy football luncheon last month in Philadelphia. "I've been around college kids my whole career," Monken said, "I know what 22 year-old kids are like - they're kids. She is such a professional. She's really, really amazing, and very much a servant leader. The first time I met her . . . she said, 'What can I do to serve the team. What can we do as a corps of cadets to help you, Coach?' And she was genuine."
Corrigan made a connection between Askew's background in sports and her success as a first captain.
"Everything we talk about in sport, relying on the person to the left and to the right, being held accountable, doesn't matter if you're black, white, a Christian, a Jew, agnostic, none of that matters," Corrigan said. "It matters whether you can be trusted on the field, or on the court, or in the crew, or whatever else it is, to do your job. Sounds a lot like what you want in an Army officer. That's the biggest part of it. And if you've been around [Askew], she's got that 'it' factor, just like Ahmad's got it, running our offense. With them, you're like, 'I don't know where we're going, but I'm in!' "
Askew, an international history major who was also recently selected as a Rhodes Scholar, eventually chose to attend the Military Academy over the Naval Academy because of her desire to pursue a major in the humanities as an undergraduate. Navy is known more for its science, technology, engineering and math programs.
At West Point, she broke barriers as the first African-American woman to be named first captain, 37 years after current four-star general Vincent Brooks became the first African- American to hold the position. That same year, Pat Locke became the first African- American woman to graduate from the academy, which admitted its first class of women in 1976.
The significance of Askew's appointment resonated. She was named first captain - the public face of the academy's student body - out of a group of 15 fourth-year cadets who had gone through a rigorous application process and were narrowed down from a group of 180 who displayed some interest in a key leadership position. As first captain, Askew not only oversees the entire Corps of Cadets, she is also the liaison between the cadets and the administration, and she is in charge of setting a class agenda.
To have an African-American woman leading that charge is significant. Women comprised 22 percent of the 1,200-person Class of 2018 when Askew started at West Point, meaning she was one of 263 female cadets. Minority enrollment was roughly 33 percent, including 166 African-Americans.
"I think it means a lot to us as a whole at school to know that we're making history together," Bradshaw said. "Not only in the African-American community, but obviously a lot of other people had an input and a say in making the decision to put her there. So it's also all of the people that had that input."
For her part, Askew is still processing what it means to her to be the first African-American woman to serve as first captain. Askew's mother is white and is divorced from her father, who is African-American. Askew's goal during her time first captain has been to further a culture of inclusivity at the academy.
"I appreciate and am very excited that it means a lot to a good amount of people, and that it impacts them, maybe in a small capacity and maybe in a really big capacity," Askew said of her first captainship. "That is awesome, and I'm more than happy to be that for whoever sees a little piece of themselves in me - and there were people before me who provided the same inspiration and motivation.
"My primary focus is having the ability, and really, the impact on a very diverse corps. Not just the women, not just the African-American population, not just the African American women, but everyone . . . for the sake of leadership, we're future officers. That's what we cling to the most."
After she serves her term as first captain and graduates this spring, Askew will be off to Oxford in September, where she is hoping to complete two one-year master's programs as one of 32 Rhodes scholars selected nationwide. She's looking into pursuing a degree in diplomatic studies or women's studies, then after those two years she'll head to a basic officer leadership course for Army engineers, the branch for which she was selected. Then, her life as a military professional begins in earnest.
But for now, Askew simply wants to make sure Saturday's March On goes perfectly. This week, Askew has put in extra-long days - asleep at 2 a.m. and up again at 6:55 a.m. - to fit in all of her schoolwork and preparation for the Army-Navy game. In her most visible showing as first captain, she wants to be able to portray the discipline and spirit that first captivated her at the Army-Navy game years ago.
"To a lot of people watching who might think of it as just another game or another rivalry, it really does mean a lot more to us than that," Askew said. "What it's communicated, what is perpetuated, what is inculcated in us is that this is a display of grit and perseverance . . . and this is one way we're able to portray it, on the football field. It's so much more than young men running around with a ball on the field, for us."
She senses more energy about the corps in anticipation of this game than she's seen in other years.
"It is crazy," she said. "The biggest thing is because we won last year, so there's definitely increased confidence in our ability to perform on the field this year. What I would also say is the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy is a big aspect of that . . . This is a big day, not only for cadets and midshipmen! Every other day we're brothers and sisters in arms, but Saturday, we're going to see who's the best, you know? It's really exciting. There's energy all around. Minimally increased energy this year because of what's on the line."
As a fan, she says she's more a proponent of uplifting Army than degrading the opponent. "But," she said, "you can't always control a large crowd of cadets."
As first captain, Askew has tried to contain all that energy throughout the week. But she let slip just a bit of trash talk as she described leading practices for the March On that lasted almost two hours on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
"And I hear it's a lot more than Navy practices," she deadpanned, "which is evident in their order and discipline on the football field."