DAVENPORT — The Quad City Steamwheelers are playing for the first time tonight at their closest geographical rival in franchise history.
However, a 75-minute trip to the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids will hardly be a new experience for QC quarterback E.J. Hilliard and top target Quinton Pedroza.
"It's a little bit of a homecoming. It's where I started off playing indoors," said Hilliard, who along with Pedroza, played a preseason game at the former Five Seasons Center during training camp last February with the Cedar Rapids club. "But things didn't go as planned, so we definitely have a little chip on our shoulders. We have something to prove — not necessarily to anybody else but ourselves, feeling we could have done something special if we'd played together there."
Instead, QC's passing duo was released after that preseason contest. But rather than head home their separate ways, they jointly followed up on a tip about a first-year re-start nearby in another league, and called 'Wheelers coach Cory Ross.
So tonight, Hilliard and Pedroza come full circle, with the 'Wheelers joining Cedar Rapids in the Indoor Football League this year after QC enjoyed a 2018 playoff campaign in Champions Indoor Football.
"We bring it up quite often," said Pedroza, who was on pace to join Hilliard in earning all-conference honors last season before missing time with injury.
"Little things will remind us how lucky we were to get here, like a new guy getting his helmet in the office the other day, and me saying, 'Wouldn't that have been nice?'"
Indeed, Pedroza's welcoming at Cedar Rapids was hardly as warm.
"They didn't have a helmet for me at first," the former Hawaii college star said.
"When I walked in, and there was a whole new coaching staff from the one that recruited me, I should have figured I was in for a surprise."
To Pedroza's shock, the depth chart also was set before camp started, and he was on the bottom rung, the last receiver at each spot.
"I played very limited snaps in the game, but I shared a helmet with Connor Hollenbeck, who is now with the Iowa Barnstormers," Pedroza recalled.
"It was his helmet, but he gave it to me when he came out, otherwise I'd not been able to play. The helmet they gave me was a whole different color, and it was all beaten up, from one of the high schools up there."
Hilliard was having an equally miserable time, fighting for second-string snaps after signing for a promised shot at the starting job.
Pedroza also split open his hand, requiring stitches, which offered another nail in the karma coffin, he said.
"It was a tough time," Pedroza added. "I'd dropped everything at home, left my family and a great job to chase football, and drove 27 hours to get here. Then I found out it was that kind of situation.
"But we're blessed with how it all turned out. We had a great time here last year, really bonded with this community, while Cedar Rapids had a nightmare season, didn't win a lot of games, and hardly anybody is back this year."
In fact, the Cedar Rapids club changed their name from Titans to River Kings, and re-hired a long-departed coach from a previous playoff era, in a re-branding effort under new ownership.
"We actually went up to the San Diego game last weekend and met the owners. They're great," said Pedroza. "When the team came down to scrimmage us (in joint workouts last month), it was very cordial and we all got in some great work.
"So I'm looking forward to the game, but it's not because of a revenge motive. It's a totally different team. So there's no bad blood. What happened is in the past."
Instead, Pedroza and Hilliard are hoping the familiarity with their surroundings tonight pays off in other ways.
"That building has probably one of the smallest end zones you will see in indoor football," Hilliard said. "So we need to know that and be adjusted to that right away."
The proximity of the game should also allow the 'Wheelers to have some fans in the stands.
"I already know some fans that are going," Pedroza said. "They're excited. They'll be sitting on the front row in some of our jerseys, and that will make the game a lot of fun. We're looking forward to that."
The duo are looking forward to impressing some other fans, too.
"We were there for only eight days before coming here," Pedroza said. "So hopefully we can show their fans what they've been missing."