Northwest Indiana boasts an amazing number of attractions to enrich the lives of those lucky enough to call that part of the state “home.” From a rich economy to a vibrant lakeshore and some of the most beautiful natural parks and recreational areas you can find anywhere in the country. But, perhaps what sets the region apart is it’s dedication to sports. Though lacking a professional-level sports team of its own, Northwest Indiana proudly supports a robust array of college and varsity level programs.
Tonight, the Gary Old Timers Athletic Association continued their rich tradition of honoring those individuals whose contributions to local sports have made a lasting impression on generations to come.
Tonight’s banquet - the 72nd annual for the association - saw Merrillville’s Avalon Manor packed to the corners with well over nine hundred local residents who gathered to honor the Athletic Association’s 2018 Honoree, Earl H Smith, Jr.
A 1952 graduate of Gary’s Roosevelt High School, Smith was a 3-year football letterman and team captain, who also dominated in track and field and broad jump before attending the University of Iowa where he set the all-time scoring record of 11 touchdowns in 1954 and won the Big 10 Scoring Championship that same year.
On returning to Indiana, Smith served as assistant football coach at Gary Tolleston High School as well as assistant track and field coach. Eventually, he coached basketball at Froebel, Gary Emerson, and Gary Lew Wallace, with teams reaching semi-state and advancing to the final eight. His impact on local athletics cannot be overstated.
“We honor someone every year,” said Mark Ribordy, President of the Gary Old Timers Athletic Association. “We get together once a year to honor someone who has excelled at athletics or athletics administration here in Northwest Indiana.”
“We typically also feature a local sports figure, but this year we have something special, something that we’ve never done before. We have two sports celebrities here tonight - Andre Dawson and Otis Wilson.”
Andre “Awesome” Dawson - also known as “The Hawk” - played center and right field for the Chicago Cubs from 1987–1992 and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1987 after leading the league with 49 homers and 137 RBIs. He is one of eight MLB players with at least 300 home runs and 300 stolen bases during his career.
Otis Wilson is known as one of the “Monsters of the Midway,” the dominating Chicago Bears team that prowled the gridiron in the 1980s and brought the trophy home to Chicago in their thrilling 1985 season after winning Superbowl XX. Wilson was possibly the Bears' most feared pass-rusher and the most intimidating player when he lined up in the 46 defense, being well-known for putting immense pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Tom Slaboski, a Munster resident came out to see Andre Dawson.
“My friend invited me,” said Slaboski, clutching a baseball bat as he waited in line to meet the former Chicago Cub. “When he told me that Andre Dawson was going to be here, I had to come out. I bought this bat for my son years ago - I’m hoping that he’ll put the ‘Hall of Fame’ part on there.”
Planning for each year’s banquet begins months in advance and tickets sell out fast, according to Athletic Association Board of Directors member Rick Jolliff.
“It’s operated like this for 72 years,” said Jolliff. “This is the only event we do. Just a bunch of guys getting together to have a great evening, talk about sports, meet one of their heroes and honor one of our own.”
“We don’t make any money off of this. We have no mission statement. It’s just a bunch of good old boys coming out here to have a good time,” said Jolliff.
Serving as Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Chicago sports commentator and author Chet Coppock who was on hand to autograph copies of his latest book, “If These Walls Could Talk,” with co-author Otis Wilson.
A full dinner was provided and entertainment was provided by current WGN news personality and sports commentator Pat Tomasulo, whose new show, “Man of the People” premieres later this month on WGN. Tomasulo brought his own brand of comedy to an already light-hearted event.
“I work at WGN and I do this nonsense on the side,” joked Tomasulo. “Stand up, not fundraisers. Maybe if I worked at a REAL station, I wouldn’t have to do this. You people don’t see Ron Magers come up here and do a tight twenty, do you?”
As the evening wound down, Coppock once again took the microphone and asked Otis Wilson if he had any advice for newly-appointed Bears head Coach Matt Nagy.
“Yeah, he should have asked for more money,” laughed Wilson.
“This is just great,” said Mark Thomas, a Hammond resident who was there with his wife, Cathy. “We’re so glad we came out!”