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Otis Wilson, Chet Coppock

Former Bears great Otis Wilson, left, and long-time sportscaster and author Chet Coppock pose with Wilson's book "If These Walls Could Talk" at Wednesday's Old Timers banquet.

Al Hamnik, The Times

HOBART — The cheap, aging AstroTurf at Montreal's Olympic Stadium had more seams and stitching than the Frankenstein monster.

Baseballs were like rifle shots when they struck the thinly-padded carpet and took off.

Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, the featured speaker at Wednesday night's 72nd Gary Old Timers banquet, had his knees take a terrible beating in 11 seasons as the Expos' center fielder.

Imagine playing the game on the street in front of your house. Same thing.

"Terry Francona had to have major knee surgery because his cleats got caught (on a seam) in the outfield," recalled Gary's Wallace Johnson, a teammate of Dawson's who played second base.

"You got to see, as you went out on the road, the different structures of other ballparks," Dawson said. "I happened to play on it all of 11 years and I think they changed the carpet once.

"That facility was built for the (1976) Olympics and not necessarily baseball. You had seams that were separated and that was the dangerous part when you got your spikes caught in it.

"It was like playing on concrete."

And his knees paid dearly for it.

"The challenge was seeing how my knees would hold up," Dawson said. "I had to refrain from a lot of pregame stuff to make sure I was at my best to get through a full game."

Tthe roof at Olympic Stadium also had tears on a regular basis and the outfield fences little or no padding as well.

Dawson played for Montreal until 1986, then probably saved his career on the plush grass at Wrigley Field as a member of the Cubs from 1987-'92.

"Oh, it was like night and day," he said, smiling. "Once I made the (free agent) move to Chicago, I always wondered why I was so stiff and sore playing on AstroTurf. When I went to Chicago, wow, I felt so much stronger.

"That was a recovery period for me."

Wallace Johnson played in Montreal from 1981 to 1990 and became good friends with Dawson, attending both his and Tim Raines' Hall of Fame inductions by invitation.

Dawson finished a 21-year career with 2,774 hits, 438 home runs, 1,591 RBIs and a .279 batting average.

In 2004, the franchise pulled up stakes, moved south and became the Washington Nationals.

Dawson, 63, will soon be named as an ambassador for the Cubs. Participating in sponsorship and charity functions will be part of his role.

Wednesday's Old Timers banquet drew a sold-out crowd of more than 900 and also featured legendary Bears' linebacker Otis Wilson.

Earl Smith Jr., former Gary city athletic director and long-time coach, was honored with the Gary Old Timers Lifetime Achievement Award.

A member of the Indiana basketball (2017) and track (2000) halls of fame, Smith spent 56 years in the Gary school system.

He was the first African-American basketball coach at Emerson and Lew Wallace high schools.

The 1952 Roosevelt grad had considered being a sports writer — until he visited former city AD Johnny Kyle during a visit home from the University of Iowa where he played football and ran track.

"He asked me what my college major was? I indicated it was journalism," Smith recalled. "He asked me if I wanted to eat? He said: 'You should major in elementary education and you can get a job right away.'

"He was correct, and after graduation, I came back to Gary and got hired immediately."

Smith is heading up a committee for a Gary Sports Hall of Fame.