Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, the three Americans who took out a suspected terrorist, met as 7-year-old boys in California

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
August 26, 2015 03:25 PM

The American trio who took down a suspected terrorist aboard a Paris-bound train first bonded as little boys – chasing each other with toy guns and playing football.

“We’ve been friends all our lives,” Anthony Sadler, 23, tells PEOPLE in the new issue.

Sadler, Spencer Stone, 23, and Alek Skarlatos, 22, spoke exclusively to PEOPLE on Sunday in the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris, as they clowned for the camera and this week’s cover.

“This is just ridiculous!” Sadler said of all the attention since he, Stone and Skarlatos tackled and immobilized alleged gunman Ayoub El-Khazzani as the native Moroccan launched an attack on the 554 people aboard Friday’s train from Amsterdam to Paris.

Added Sadler: “Our parents like to say that whenever we get together, there’s always something that happens.”

Stone and Skarlatos have been best buddies since they were 7-year-old boys in the same Christian elementary school and living next door to each other in Carmichael, California, Skarlatos’ stepmother, Karen, tells PEOPLE.

As a pair, the boys were at home in each other’s houses, which had “an open-door policy,” she said. “They’ve literally grown up together.”

Sadler, who lived three miles away, made it a carefree trio when they ended up at the same Christian middle school. They remained close even after Skarlatos moved with his father to Oregon their junior year of high school. Later, after Sadler went off to college, Skarlatos deployed to Afghanistan with the National Guard and Stone was stationed in Portugal with the Air Force.

“They were good boys, but they got into their fair share of mischief – you know, three boys,” Anthony Sadler Sr. says with a laugh. “But nothing too dramatic.”

“They looked after each other then, and it’s not surprising that they looked after each other [on that train].

From left: Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler on Aug. 23
Denis Allard

The young men had met up in Amsterdam for their first European tour just three days before their fateful train trip.

Stone, who was first down the train-car aisle to charge El-Khazzani, says what motivated him were the two lifelong buddies at his side.

He wanted, he says, “to survive – for my friends and everyone else on the train to make it.”

For more on the trio’s remarkable heroics and inspiring bond, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday