It takes a little telling to explain what's serious about a childish sort of game that will be played Friday night at Glendale High School.
Thirty-two Glendale policemen, suited up in uniforms borrowed from the school, will meet a team of policemen from Pasadena in a regulation game of contact football. They expect people of the town to pay $2 a head to watch them.
The truth is that the officers wanted to play the game anyway. But they were clever enough to come up with a pretty compelling excuse.
His name is Matthew Scanlon. He is recovering from cancer. By a coincidence for which there is no adequate explanation, tomorrow night's game will be on his fifth birthday.
There are two stories here, really, Matthew's and the cops'.
Matthew's is straight hard news. He got cancer on the right adrenal gland. It spread to the kidney and lymph glands and bone marrow before his family doctors gave up and specialists at Childrens Hospital finally diagnosed the problem in March.
They removed a third of a kidney, some of the lymph nodes and, while they were at it, the appendix. They gave Matthew chemotherapy and radiation. They transplanted his bone marrow and put him in a sterile room for five weeks. He lost his hair but not his curiosity or his interest in his own situation.
"Give me a boost of morphine," he would instruct the nurse when things got too tough.
Matthew's mother, Rosinna, a slender, articulate, strong young woman, had a harder time adjusting.
"I was in a coma," she said. "It was like living outside of my body. . . . It's taken me at least nine months. I'm just now starting to live again."
Matthew's father, who works at Fedco, had an insurance plan that covered the bills. But it was the family's church that sustained them emotionally. They go to St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale.
"Matthew has become so religious," his mother said. "We go to church every Sunday. He sits there and lights candles for all the kids at the hospital. There is this crucifix that my dad gave him. He takes it everywhere. He never complains about any of the procedures. If anything hurts, he'll take his crucifix and ask Jesus to help him."
His cancer now appears to be in remission. Even so, he will undergo tests every three months to watch for any recurrence. Between tests, Matthew is well enough to go out with his mother, wearing gloves and a mask to protect him from germs.
"Whatever we've gone through, it was worth it," Rosinna said. "He's just a real good kid."
That's Matthew's story. By comparison, the Glendale cops' has a kind of fraternity party ring. They started a football team about five years ago. First they played against the city's Fire Department, said the team's organizer, Ben Mihm.
But the fire chief frowned upon the injuries his men received and told them to cut it out, Mihm said. The officers now all sign waivers saying that if they get hurt they will not hold the city responsible.
They got a new opponent by challenging the police force of the next-door city of Pasadena. The teams played last year in Pasadena. Glendale accepted Pasadena's proposal to ask every spectator to bring a Christmas toy for a needy child.
"We had about 1,500," Mihm said. "We think that's pretty good for just a bunch of old cops out there beating each other up."
This year they play in the Glendale High School stadium. As the home team, Glendale had the duty of naming this year's cause.
They got their inspiration at Conrad's restaurant.
A few of the officers go to Conrad's for lunch. There they met Rosinna Scanlon, who used to be the restaurant's manager. She saw to it that they got in and out on their breaks.
They asked about Rosinna when someone else took her place a few months back. It isn't hard for a cop to find someone. Officer Bob Masucci tracked her down and asked if there was anything he could do.
There was something the whole department could do.
Matthew was in the transplant unit at Childrens Hospital, getting new bone marrow. He required blood platelets every other day and whole-blood transfusions three or four times a week. The police officers started a drive to help. They rallied the firefighters and other city employees. They got 108 pints of blood.
For Rosinna, the police became a secular source of healing power.
"I was at my weakest point when I ran into the officer and all the help and the concern," she said. "You expect the family to be there. But when it's outside people, it gives you a different kind of strength to go on."
Four weeks ago the police team started working out Sunday mornings to shape up for the big game on Dec. 15. They called Rosinna to tell her they planned to donate the gate to Matthew.
Wouldn't you know it would be his birthday?
It could also be a decent game.
"We've got some pretty big ol' guys," Mihm said. "We've got some 255 pounds, 225 pounds on our offensive line. We've got some speed in the backfield."
Game time is 7 p.m. Tickets are $2. Kids are free.
Matthew has paid for all of them.