The sign was clear and unquestionable.
On the night before his visit to the United States Naval Academy, White Knoll football player Alex Brown had prayed for a sign — a billboard, in fact — if Annapolis was the proper next step for his academic and football career.
The state’s top-rated senior tight end got something even better.
On the campus at Navy, Brown got a feeling of peace and belonging.
Not long after, Brown, whose paternal grandfather and maternal great-grandfather both served in the Navy, gave his verbal commitment to the service academy, one of a dozen programs that had shown interest in the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder.
The choice was a lifetime in the making.
“My whole life I’ve always been infatuated with the military,” Brown said. “I always liked to talk to servicemen, thank them for their service.”
For years, Brown sat at the knee of his great-grandfather Fred Hardwick, a World War II veteran who worked his way from enlisted seaman to officer, listening to stories of combat and life on the ship.
“I got to spend a lot of time with him because he was our next door neighbor, so even though he passed away when I was in the seventh grade, I saw so much of his character, how he worked his entire life and the kind of man that he became, he was a Navy man,” Brown said.
And the men who know him best said Brown has the markings of a military man, too.
Steven Brown, his father, said he knew early on that Alex, the eldest of his three children, was earmarked for greatness.
“Just watching him grow, you know when one kid is different than the rest, when your kid is extraordinary,” the elder Brown said. “He’s just built to do it big.”
At White Knoll, coach Gordon Walters immediately noticed Brown’s character.
“Since day one, he seemed like he was leaning towards a military education,” Walters said. “When we met after his junior season, I told him, he seems like an Academy kid to me. He would just fit. He’s a fantastic kid, an outstanding student-athlete, the kind of guy the academies look for.”
Still, Brown was reluctant to consider the Naval Academy. He said he had thought about enlisting “if college did not work out” — not likely with his 4.73 grade point average — but he was not initially keen on the idea of leaving the Carolinas for college.
“It was like beating him with a wet towel to get him to at least take the visit,” said Steven Brown, who urged his son to consider all the possibilities.
But once they got on campus, the father had to do no more convincing.
At the Saturday football game, Alex Brown was awed by the atmosphere when the Navy student body marched onto the field before taking their seats in the stands.
He was even more impressed when he met with some of the players after the game.
“Every guy in there was a gentleman. You won’t find a bad seed on the team, and I knew right then that was the kind of team I want to be on,” Brown said.
The next day, at Navy’s historical Bancroft Hall dormitory, Brown’s tour guide attempted to lead him through the building’s main entrance — a threshold only to be crossed by graduates and those who will never enroll at the Academy.
“Something just stopped me. I could not walk in that door. And that’s when I knew I was supposed to go to Navy,” Brown said.
“I’ve always known that I was going to be part of something big; I just didn’t know what it was,” Brown said. “Now, it’s a calming thing, just to know where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to do.”
In combing through a box of Hardwick’s belongings, Brown uncovered a set of ensign rank shoulderboards.
Preserved for more than 40 years, those shoulderboards will sit for five more years. And then Brown will don them on his college graduation day, when he, too, will be bestowed the rank of ensign at the U.S. Naval Academy.