WhirlyBall's Chicago-area founder remembered for bringing joy
As Sam Elias lay in his hospital bed receiving treatment, two attending physicians entered the room and noticed the WhirlyBall shirt he was wearing.
Why the shirt? they wondered.
Well, he was the founder and CEO of WhirlyBall's three Chicago-area locations, plus two others in Colorado Springs and Milwaukee.
"The two doctors absolutely lit up," said Sam Elias' son, Adam, who since 2013 has worked alongside his father as WhirlyBall vice president.
Joy was the gift Sam Elias provided: No matter the scenario, the mention of WhirlyBall brings smiles and laughter to anyone who has ever played this freewheeling entertainment, essentially a cross of basketball, lacrosse and hockey in bumper cars.
Elias, 59, died from cancer Sept. 4 in his Northbrook home.
"All the way up through his last days, people were still telling him how much fun they had at the concept he brought to Chicago," said Adam Elias, who last November helped engineer the relocation of the Chicago-area flagship branch from Lombard to Naperville. It continues the business model of a full-service restaurant with a focus on craft beers, cocktails and wine -- and the crazy concoction that is WhirlyBall.
"Sam's legacy will be carried out by the Elias family and infused through the entire WhirlyBall organization," Adam Elias said.
It could have been different; but for a man who was listening to the Grateful Dead as he passed, took up snowboarding at age 40 with his three sons -- Adam, Ryan and Jacob -- an adventurous career was perhaps always his destination.
Growing up in North Miami Beach, Florida, he'd already done well in information technology with his own company, Computer Classified Incorporated. That is, until his high school sweetheart and eventual wife of 35 years, Robyn, surprised him with a 30th birthday party at a WhirlyBall location in Miami. Sam Elias was hooked on the concept, his days in information technology then numbered.
Initially considering starting in Atlanta, he desired a cooler climate. Visiting a WhirlyBall in Detroit (under different management), he figured if it worked there, it would work in Chicago, Adam Elias said.
Through contacts, Sam Elias found a vacant, column-free building at 800 E. Roosevelt Road, Lombard. He pitched the concept to the building's landlord, who had never heard of WhirlyBall. Expecting this, Elias shared a videotape of a television show that had featured the activity, and they traipsed across the street to the Highland Superstore and shoved the tape into a videocassette recorder.
A salesperson happened by, stopped, and exclaimed how fun WhirlyBall was when he played it in Detroit.
"Right there on the spot, the landlord said, 'All right, let's do this,'" Adam Elias recalled.
Completed in six weeks, the first WhirlyBall in the Chicago area opened in Lombard on Jan. 15, 1993. In three months it became the highest-grossing location in the country.
"At the time it was only the game," Adam Elias said. "When (Sam Elias) put a focus on service and hospitality is when WhirlyBall really started to thrive."
Locations in Chicago, Vernon Hills, Colorado, Wisconsin and Naperville followed, with Robyn, Adam, Ryan and one of Sam Elias' three sisters, Beth Roscoe, helping steer the business.
Sam Elias became the sole licensee of WhirlyBall equipment in 2012 and, in 2014, after the city of Chicago claimed eminent domain over the Fullerton Avenue site to create the Elston Bypass, he built a new building and moved the operation to Webster Avenue in Bucktown.
"There's not very many people out there that would just go ahead and build a building from the ground up. He was that kind of individual that would go in and do something like that," Adam Elias said.
"He was the best. He was a super fun-loving guy who would do anything he could to help people, whether they be family, his friends or his employees."
Until this past spring Sam. Elias snowboarded on the family trip to Colorado, but in warmer months he'd be in his backyard in Northbrook listening to music, "particularly the Grateful Dead," Adam said.
Unlike his original trek to Chicago's cooler climes, he had hoped to snowbird back in Florida with Robyn.
Professionally, though, his goal was to expand on his passion, WhirlyBall.
"The game that you can have the most fun at 4 miles an hour is something we want to share across the country," Adam Elias said.
"With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, it became an institution in Chicago that so many people have wonderful memories of and so many more will be made over the next several decades."
A private service at Buffalo Grove Chapel was held Sept. 6. In lieu of flowers contributions may be made to the Michael I. Jacobson Memorial Gomle Fund; Feeding Illinois; or The ARK Kosher food bank.