BLOOMINGTON - Winston Taylor has been in training camp with the Miami Dolphins and also played in NFL Europe. The former University of Illinois linebacker wasn't sure if he would enjoy indoor football.
Two things convinced Taylor he made a good decision last week - the Bloomington Extreme's 44-40 comeback victory over Peoria in its United Indoor Football opener and his first glimpse of the new U.S. Cellular Coliseum.
"We went in (to the Coliseum) last week. Everyone was awestruck looking around," said Taylor, the Extreme's 245-pound middle linebacker who made eight tackles with 1½ sacks at Peoria.
U.S. Cellular Coliseum makes its long-awaited debut at 3 p.m. today when the Extreme plays its franchise home opener against the Fort Wayne Freedom. As of Friday afternoon, about 5,500 tickets had been sold at the 6,500-seat facility. The ticket box office will open at 10 a.m. today.
Taylor said winning the franchise's inaugural game was important.
But winning the home opener might carry even more significance.
"The thing that gets you fired up is the fact it's your home," said Taylor. "You can't let anyone beat you at your own house. It's a matter of respect."
Extreme coach Ted Schmitz has plenty of respect for Fort Wayne, which downed Sioux City 28-23 last week in its opener.
"I wasn't nervous last week, but this week I am. We're playing a better team," said Schmitz. "They had the best talent I saw, by far, last year. We're going to be a little short-handed. One or two starters will be missing for personal reasons. But the guys taking their place might be just as good."
Schmitz didn't want to name the missing starters. However, he said quarterback Dusty Burk will be in the building.
Burk earned UIF Offensive Player of the Week honors after completing 15 of 22 attempts for 185 yards and five touchdowns against Peoria.
The Extreme's fate today might come from stopping the Freedom's biggest offensive threat, someone Taylor knows a lot about.
Fort Wayne running back Rocky Harvey was a senior at Illinois while Taylor was sitting out as a redshirt after transferring from Eastern Illinois in 2001. Taylor practiced with the Illini that season and got a lot of looks at the 5-foot-9, 220-pound Harvey.
"The thing about Rocky that makes him hard to tackle is he's so small. He gets lost back there," said Taylor. "That's always been the problem. He's small and makes quick cuts. We're going to have to have pursuit by everyone."
Harvey rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 33 touchdowns last season when the Freedom went 14-3. He gained 38 yards rushing last week on 16 carries with one touchdown and also threw for a touchdown on an option pass.
"It will be our stud (Taylor) on their stud (Harvey)," said Schmitz.
Schmitz said Fort Wayne isn't a typical indoor team. He said the Freedom likes to play ball control on offense, running almost as much as passing, and relies on a physical defense.
First-year Fort Wayne coach Dan Pifer said Harvey is the key to his offense.
"You have to run with a back like him. He has a low center of gravity," said Pifer, who was an assistant with Fort Wayne last year. "The big thing is his cutting ability. He's a slasher. He can cut on a dime and change direction like that. That's what you need in this league, someone who can do a lot of things in a small area. He's a threat to break it at any time. He's strong, too. He can be a power runner."
Many of the Extreme players, such as Taylor, played their first indoor game last week. That may have accounted for the slow start against Peoria.
The Rough Riders took a 30-10 lead early in the third quarter. At that point, Schmitz said the Extreme defensive coaching staff decided "not to do the fancy things we thought we needed to do." They held Peoria to 29 yards and 10 points the rest of the game.
"Last week we went into the game with no clue," said Taylor. "We had no film on them from last year. This week we can sit down and know their tendencies. It definitely makes the game easier."
Schmitz expects a lower scoring game than last week, partly because of Fort Wayne's defense.
Fort Wayne middle linebacker Lewis "Bam" Carter was the UIF's Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Sioux City. He helped hold the Bandits to 187 yards of total offense. Carter recorded nine solo tackles and three assists.
The Extreme also needs to be aware of 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive lineman Rachman Crable. "No one has been able to block him in this league for a year and a game," said Schmitz.
Fort Wayne has some knowledge about Bloomington. Extreme wide receiver Glenn Johnson, who caught four passes for 62 yards and two touchdowns last week, played with the Freedom last year. Another Extreme wide receiver, Dwayne Smith, was in Fort Wayne's training camp last year.
Pifer said his team is glad to be helping the Extreme open their new building and expects a "hostile environment" for the visitors.
"One of our reporters asked me if we would be scared of the environment," said Pifer. "We know it's going to be loud, but it's easier to get excited for a game like that rather than 500 people. We have good crowds here and (opposing) teams play well and are emotional."