BETTENDORF — E.J. Hilliard walks with an agonizingly-obvious hitch in his giddy-up these days.

Out of the sight of fans and foes alike, the Quad City Steamwheelers quarterback has worn a splint on his trigger finger off the field for a good portion of this season to relieve pain.

His tightly-wrapped throwing elbow also looks like a cowboy that's messed with the wrong end of a bull too many times.

Yet, the hobbled gunslinger limps on, determined to shoot the local Indoor Football League team into the playoffs.

A win in Saturday's regular-season finale at Tucson (6-7), or a loss by Nebraska (6-7) at the Iowa Barnstormers (12-1), clinches a postseason berth for Hilliard's 'Wheelers (6-7).

"That young man is playing with so many injuries right now it'd be crazy to let you all know," QC coach Cory Ross said about his second-year signal caller.

"He's a man. He's got that old-school mentality, that there's a fine line between being hurt and being injured. If you're injured? You definitely can't play. But you can play if you're hurt, and E.J.'s playing well even though he's hurting a lot."

Hilliard tops the IFL in passing yards (2,526) and is one behind the lead in touchdown passes (54). The 61.2-percent passer also ranks second in passer efficiency (188.9) with only one interception against him this season.

The 25-year-old Floridian also leads the 'Wheelers in rushing with 416 yards and 15 TDs, ranking Top 10 in both categories league-wide.

But the ground game also produces the most pain for Hilliard.

Just last weekend, on the first of his three scoring runs, the high school understudy of NFL QB Teddy Bridgewater went smashing into the end zone wall when a defender dove at his heels on his stride into the end zone.

Hilliard remained down on the field for several moments before scrambling to his feet holding his throwing arm and running into the back hallway of the TaxSlayer Center to shake off an injury out of sight of the crowd.

"I actually hit the ground on the same elbow I injured against Cedar Rapids (last month)," Hilliard said. "It looked worse than it was. I just had to see where the pain was at when I was on the ground.

"There's a lot of swelling in the area, so the mobility isn't there, but I'm trying to find a way to make it work. I had a (protective) pad on it to keep the pressure off of it. Once I got hit, it swelled back up, so I just have to ice it up and rest up until (Saturday)."

Hilliard took several other shots during last weekend's win over Bismarck, including a pair of roughing the passer penalties and another hit from behind from the last defender to the pile on a run stopped by the official's whistle.

"It felt like they were taking some cheap shots," Hilliard said. "But I also have to know there's a target on my back, and people want to get me off my game by roughing me up. So I just have to keep my cool, and we just have to keep doing what we're doing on offense."

Since Dillon Turner left in April for the starting job at CIF Sioux City, Hilliard has operated without a backup on the roster. Available veterans have so far passed on uprooting their lives for little money and no promise of playing time.

"The way E.J. runs the ball scares me, but he tries to get everything out of a play," said Ross, a former NFL running back.

"There was a bad snap (last weekend) and I saw it in his eyes. He picked it up, ready to make a play and I'm yelling, 'Throw it away! Throw it away!'

"He finally did. But that's the kind of effort I can't get mad at. That guy is trying to win on every play. That's the way I ran the football. I'd cut back and try to score on every carry."

So Ross has tried to curtail Hilliard's running through game-planning and play-calling.

"When E.J. stayed down, my heart skipped a beat," Ross admitted. "But when I realized it was his elbow, and it wasn't a knee, I knew he'd be OK. The elbow's already hurt and he's a warrior.

"We still have to find ways to protect him, though, because he's the key to us going forward. The effort he puts in, and how he handles his business, and his understanding of this offense, they're all just remarkable.

"He's hitting guys when I'm looking somewhere else, but he's finding guys open because he's seeing the field so well. His numbers show it, but what the fans don't understand is the leadership he brings."

Last weekend was another example with Hilliard persevering through the pain.

"We got the 'W,' that's what matters," Hilliard said. "I'm a little banged up right now, but I've got to keep pushing if we want to keep having fun."


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