Steven Elrod was 12 when his father, who played offensive lineman for Northwestern University, made a flying tackle that would break his neck and leave him paralyzed.
It was Oct. 11, 1969. Violent anti-Vietnam War protests through the Gold Coast and the Loop that came to be known as the “Days of Rage” pitted the Weathermen, a radical wing of the Students for a Democratic Society, against Chicago Police denounced by the radical demonstrators as “pigs.”
Richard Elrod, who would go on to become Cook County sheriff and a Circuit Court judge, was an assistant corporation counsel monitoring the street demonstrations on that day. The elder Elrod was trying to subdue one of the rioters to assist a police officer who had been hit in the head with a glass bottle.
On Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., politicians, judges and members of the Elrod family will gather on the northwest corner of Madison and Dearborn to honorarily rename the street where Richard Elrod made a decision that would change his life forever.
“The demonstrator, Brian Flanagan, started running [down] Dearborn toward my dad. When somebody yelled, ‘Stop that man,’ there’s probably some instinct that came out from his football years. My dad went to stop him as a football player would — by making the tackle,” Steven Elrod recalled.
“My dad hit the sidewalk, broke his neck and insisted that he be lifted up and put into a squad car. You can see him lifted up and put into a squad car with his head dangling. When somebody suffers a head or neck injury, you’re supposed to immobilize them. You put them on a flat board with a neck brace. That didn’t happen. My dad always suspectedthat made the paralysis permanent.”
During a trial that mesmerized the city, the prosecution claimed that Flanagan, a 22-year-old New York carpenter, kicked Elrod with heavy-toed construction boots, paralyzing him from the neck down. The defense countered that Elrod brought the injury on himself with a flying tackle that missed Flanagan and hit a wall.
Flanagan was subsequently acquitted of aggravated assault. But that does not diminish the honor or the bravery that Richard Elrod demonstrated on that day, Steven Elrod said.
“He told my sister and me from his hospital bed that this would not stop him or deter anything. And it didn’t. He was a man who simply overcame tragedy and overcame adversity. Now that the city is actually honoring him by naming the street for him, it’s so fitting. From lying on the street to now being honored is exactly the way he lived his life. Nothing set him back,” Steven Elrod said.
“My father never looked back or said, ‘What if?’ or ‘Should I have?’ If anyone ever said, ‘Why didn’t you [do something different],’ he would change the subject. I’m going to follow his lead.”
The Weathermen subsequently produced a song mocking Elrod to the tune of the Bob Dylan hit, “Lay Lady Lay.” Instead, the radical demonstrators inserted, “Lay, Elrod, lay. Lay in the street for a while. Stay, Elrod, stay. Stay in your bed for a while.”
That’s ironic, considering the fact that Richard Elrod was out on the street that day and all that week to make certain that demonstrators could exercise their civil rights, Steven Elrod said.
“The year before, the demonstrators were stifled while the ‘whole world was watching’ Chicago [host] the Democratic National Convention,” Steven Elrod said.
“He was trying to help the police and the demonstrators. He was doing everything in his power to assist. He cared deeply about Chicago and did not want to see what happened a year earlier repeated.”
Richard Elrod died last year following complications from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. He was 80.