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Longtime friends who played for CdM Sea Kings won’t let their tradition or brotherhood end

It was a labor of love as a group of longtime friends – mostly former football players from Corona del Mar High’s 1976 squad -– recreated their Sea Kings mascot on a small strip of beach on Balboa Island.

It was a nearly two-hour effort, but lucky for the group, among their numbers was Chris Crosson, a sand sculptor known for regularly creating masterpieces on the beach at the end of Sapphire Avenue and South Bay Front.

Once complete, the group of 11 stood at the sculpture for a photo marking this year’s kickoff to the annual Thanksgiving gathering of the Last Man Standing Society.

The tradition started 46 years ago with a turkey bowl flag football game held at Lincoln Elementary School in Corona del Mar and has become the basis of enduring friendships among the members.

“This is a great reason for a very diverse group of guys that have a common origin to get together once a year and not lose touch of each other,” said Crosson, 64, now of Irvine, who wore No. 21 and played tailback and was on special teams for Sea Kings football.

The Last Man Standing Society, which now includes 17 men all in their 60s, is about celebrating their decades of friendship and strengthening those bonds as they grow older.

The idea of their fellowship, they said, is they have each other’s back and that at the end, when there is only one man left, he will celebrate all the others with his own family.

Each man in the group has a certificate to that effect that is signed by all members. And, a bottle of brandy has been saved for the occasion.

Each member has also written letters to their fellow last men that are sealed and will only be opened upon their death. In the letters, they write about the importance of their brotherhood, what each member has meant to them and also make requests of those surviving, the men said.

It was Tom Freeman who came up with the idea of the Last Man Standing Society.

Freeman, 63, who wore No. 22 and played “flanker” or today’s slot receiver, said he was inspired watching a M.A.S.H episode in which Col. Potter receives a mysterious package that turns out to be an old bottle of brandy from a pact he made as a young man in World War I with four friends who took shelter in an old castle while under heavy artillery fire.

It was after that, and after the Sea Kings lost the last game of their senior season during the CIF first-round playoffs to the Cajon Cowboys 21-7, that Freeman – now known as “Big” or “Glue” among his friends – said he started feeling really nostalgic about keeping his group together.

“You sweat together, you have two-a-day practices in summer, you see these guys more than your own family,” Freeman, now of Lake Forest, said. “We were going off to college  – Standford, ASU, UCLA, San Diego State, USC – and we didn’t want to lose our special friendships.

“We have a lot of things we shared,” he said. “Our parents all stayed together, most of us have strong connections with faith and, later, we were all in each other’s weddings.”

Steve Layton, No. 51 and a guard for the Sea Kings, said he remembers really liking the idea when he first heard about Freeman’s plan.

“My dad had a group of friends he’d known since high school and that was my example,” Layton said. “Friendships are deeper. The closest friends are the ones you go to hell with and back.”

Over the decades, the men have shared joys and tragedies as they’ve gone through life. There have been life-threatening cancers, hip replacements and two have heart issues. One is paralyzed after falling from scaffolding and one served jail time. Two served in the military.

In all, there are 29 children and nine grandchildren between them – one member’s son died.

Their friendship has endure, they said, because they have these “extended brothers” to lean on.

And, the annual Thanksgiving football game is now only one of the multiple events of the Last Man Society’s annual celebration, which has now turned into a 24-hour event over the holiday.

After building the mascot in the sand, the group went to visit the remaining parents of members – there are only two left. Not so long ago, they were still visiting multiple sets of parents throughout Newport Beach.

At Mrs. (Shirley) Harrier’s house in the East Bluff neighborhood of Newport Beach, the guys put up Christmas lights. The visit always includes pizza, beer and Ding Dongs – a nod to the lunchbox staple. They hung out at The Place, a sports bar in town owned by a friend, and also took time during the night to communicate virtually with those who couldn’t physically be there.

At the end of the evening, the group returned to Harrier’s home for an all-night round of poker.

For Shirley Harrier, now 84, their visit is a welcome flash to the past. She still recalls what it was like as a parent booster of the Sea Kings and the many turkey bowl games that followed as her son, Don Harrier, who wore No. 81 and was a tight-end, continued with the Last Man tradition.

“The guys are great; they all call me mother. It’s one of my best nights” she said, adding that she’s in bed when the poker game starts.

“We’ve lost many of our parents,” said Don Harrier, 63, who now lives in Menlo Park. “Our whole basis is somewhat transitionary. It’s all incredibly special and something we don’t take for granted.”

Harrier scored the only touchdown for the Sea Kings in that last 1976 game, and while his team lost, the 76 yards touchdown run was among the season’s longest.

On Thanksgiving, he and the other members – along with a younger generation of sons and sons-in-law – lined up on the Lincoln field again. All of the guys still have their Sea King jerseys – both the navy home color and the white away jersey.

Harrier said he still has that “competitive fire” he had 46 years ago.

“When I have a bad game, I get really mad and try not to let it ruin the last 24 hours,” he said, laughing.

“We enjoy the tradition more than the competition,” he added. “The next generation with us is rich and they may be the ones we end up watching from the sideline beach chairs in the future.”

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