The first time was nice. Very nice.
With the game between Las Vegas and Tampa Bay being televised back home in Tampa, Sting defensive specialist Rodney Mazion went about making sure he was in the picture nearly every time.
Pass to Thomas, tackle by Mazion. Run to Caesar, tackle by Mazion. Pass by Gruden, picked off by Mazion.
By the time the game ended, Tampa Bay had a win but the former Hillsborough High School standout had nine tackles and an interception _ the best defensive effort by a Sting player this season.
But if Mazion was up for that game, he should be even more pumped for the second time. Tonight, family and friends will be watching in person as Mazion leads his Sting team into the ThunderDome for a 7:30 p.m. showdown with the Storm.
Mazion said he expects 25 family members and assorted friends to watch him play. This, of course, after a day of just hanging out and renewingold acquaintances.
"I'm excited about this one, most definitely," said Mazion before Friday's team walk-through at the Dome. "My main priority is business, which is football, first and foremost. Friends and family will have to come second. But we've got a little get-together planned. I'm here to relax a little bit, too."
Until late in the week, Mazion wasn't even sure he'd be making the trip with the 1-4 Sting. He suffered a neck stinger last week in a win over St. Louis. But it would have taken a far more serious injury for him to pass up playing in Tampa Bay.
Mazion was a multisport star at Hillsborough High from 1987-90. In 1988, he teamed with Dan Footman, Carl Everett and Joe Abrams to set a state record in the 4x100 relay at the state championships. In 1989, he was one of the stars of a Hillsborough defensive backfield that featured Marvin Robinson, and was one of the most dangerous kick returners in the county. He also was an all-area selection in baseball.
But in his senior year, Mazion injured his knee and played only twice. Still, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas was interested enough to offer him a football scholarship, and the New York Mets were interested too.
In 1993, after his sophomore season at UNLV, Mazion played a season in the New York/Penn League and hit .266. Finishing school, however, was a higher priority, and he left the Mets to re-join UNLV.
"I really wanted to finish school, so I came back," he said. "Once you start baseball, it's hard to go back."
Mazion now lives in Las Vegas with Robinson, a former high school teammate who transferred to UNLV after two years at Notre Dame. The two, who wrapped up their collegiate playing careers this past season, are training together in hopes of landing a job in the Canadian Football League.
Mazion is two classes shy of a degree in criminal justice. He'd like to play in the NFL or CFL, but will settle for the FBI or CIA.
"Maybe I can springboard myself up to the next level," Mazion said. "But I want to get into law enforcement. I figure I'll play my sports first and see where it takes me."
This week, it takes him home.
Ht.: 5-8 Wt.: 170
Career: Free safety for the Rebels signed with Las Vegas as a free-agent WR/DB April 10 played baseball in the Mets organization, hitting .266 with Class-A Pittsfield in 1993.
Mazion hopes to calm Storm in homecoming
STORM VS. LAS VEGAS
When/where: 7:40 tonight at the ThunderDome, St. Petersburg.
Radio: WHNZ-AM 570.
Tickets: $7-$50, available at Ticketmaster outlets and ThunderDome box office.
Records: Tampa Bay 4-1, Las Vegas 1-4.
Eyeing the Storm: It will test its ability to rebound after losing last week to Albany 42-36. The Storm failed to score in the fourth quarter. The Storm traded Johnny Eaton to Charlotte for future considerations this week. FB Cedric McKinnon, who hasn't played since May 27, has been activated. The Storm's leading rusher, Ivan Caesar, is bothered by a hamstring injury and has been deactivated. DB Corey Dowden, who twisted his ankle last week, is questionable, along with DB Bobby Byrd.
About Las Vegas: The Sting won its first game of the season by crushing previously unbeaten St. Louis 57-25. Las Vegas set an Arena record along with Arizona when the teams combined for 141 points in a 72-69 Rattlers win May 27. Adrian Jarrell and Darryl Tillman returned kickoffs for touchdowns against Tampa Bay earlier this season. RB James Johnson leads Vegas in rushing and has seven touchdowns.
_ JOHN C. COTEY