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Field of memories
They come as they have for more than 30 years, meeting at 10 a.m. every Thanksgiving Day morning — without the prompting of phone calls and e-mails.
They are the football team of the Class of 1974.
They join teams of alums from other Mercer Island High School classes in a self-organized football fest that lasts for hours in Thanksgiving Day.
Despite the icy downpour last Thursday morning on the holiday, the senior parking lot at the high school was half-full, the playfields were busy.
A vigorous scrum involving the Class of 2005 played tackle at the south end of Islander stadium. At the north end, the older and slightly more sedate 1974 team wisely played touch.
Despite the years gone by, there were recognizable plays, touchdowns scored and elbows thrown on the north end. There was the inevitable hooting and sighing.
On the sideline, a trio of more recent grads tossed the pigskin around as they waited for more of their classmates to show up. They watched the older team out of the corner of their eye.
“They are still looking good,” volunteered Michael Chew of the class of 2006.
And they should. The dozen or so members of the Class of 1974 represent the Islander team that won the first-ever division play-off for the KingCo Championship in 1973, humbling the favored team, Sammamish, 28 - 0.
On this morning the players divided into teams as they always have — by which middle school they attended; either the long-defunct North Mercer Island Junior High School (now the North Mercer gym) and the South Mercer Island Junior High School, now Islander Middle School. Touchstones of luck and tradition were evident. A pair of letterman’s jackets from the year were seen as well as a couple of prized, faded jerseys. Their coach, Gene Yerabek, stopped by to check in on his champs.
But this year the game was bittersweet. Someone was missing. Brent Hillard, a fellow native, loyal friend, star defensive halfback and a team captain, died just a couple of weeks earlier of cancer. Phil Emory, team scribe and historian, had a banner made to honor their friend for this year’s game —and the many yet to come.
After an hour on the field, it was time for another class to have a turn As each new team took the field, greetings and high fives were exchanged — any differences between the young and not-so young were gone this day. The 1973 Kingco champs took off to warm up with a pre-Thanksgiving dinner snack and pitcher of beer at the Islander.
As it is with athletes and glory days, it is about the remembering. It is the parsing of the details over and over again, the teasing, the tossing of names as familiar as their own and how it was all different then — the good and the bad.
All but one of the dozen who came this cold morning were born here (well actually Seattle, one corrects helpfully - no way to be born here). A show of hands revealed the majority were not only alumni of Mercer Island High School, but of Island grade schools and Sunnybeam School too. They belonged to a high school graduating class of some 500 students; a mere 350 students are set to finish MIHS this June.
They remember the ferry, the way parents weren’t so concerned where they were all the time, the hesitation to tell others where they were from and being labeled “rich kids.”
“I used to dread telling people where I was from,” said one.
A key part of group dynamic is how the kids were split into separate middle schools in the sixth grade.
The separation was traumatic. “Our parents and the school were teaching us about the Civil War from about third grade on,” Rick Tourtillotte said with a grin. “Then they split us into North and South for middle school.”
The apparent competition has lasted ever since, now less reliant on feats of physical prowess than to who can get the story right. No one could finish a story without hearing, “No, no - that is not how it went.”
There was laughter and more laughter.
There was a story about someone ratted-out for stealing the cribbage board from the P.E. teachers who would play between classes.
There were the dares: Who would be the first to date a girl from the South?
Other tales involved who was beating up who for what and why.
The football stories and schoolhouse memories more than inform what this group means to each other — how they toughed it out together.
They weren’t as big as past teams, they agreed, and remember that as sophomores they were “the practice dummies” for the senior players.
There were stories about “boxing lessons” in P.E. that sometimes went too far. The pain of their bravado now funny. “Everybody was trying to be tough then,” said Keith Cochran.
One student was knocked unconscious, others were hurt, but afraid then to show it.
They lamented the loss of the old Islander mascot, a politically incorrect image of pygmy or a Polynesian — they couldn’t agree for sure.
It was a caricature with a bone in its hair and another through its nose, explained Dave Maeser, who played tennis and not football in school. They agreed it was a much more fitting mascot for Islanders than the current “slug logo.”
There are regrets — not having enough recognition of the glory of winning the KingCo title. The loss of stats and records from those years. There is no mention of the team in the more recently established Hall of Fame at the high school. But there are joys remembered of rivalry and competition, the admiration for the gifts of other players, of just being together.
“Guys seem to have a ‘time in their lives,’ said Cochran. “Some men have WWII - but this might be ours”.
Their buddy Brent was at this same table just a year ago. They grew quiet when asked about their friend, his wife and their two young children. The service for their teammate just days ago was standing room only.
“Brent was friendly to everyone he ever came across,” said Jim Hale after a minute.
He’d be in on this, someone said of the lively conversation. “We’ve got to carry on for him - do our best.”
Is it enough to get together just once a year? Oh yes, they concurred, laughing again. Plenty.
“I wish it was more,” said Mike Evans.
This time, no one corrected him.