2017 was a special, yet heart-breaking year for former Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe, writes Kris Gourlay. For those of you who don’t know the story of him and his best friend Bradley Lowery, this will warm your heart. Bradley, a young Sunderland fan, had a very uncommon and untreatable form of cancer called Neuroblastoma. Aged just 6 years old, Bradley eventually fought the illness bravely until it was too much, and he passed away peacefully, but what Jermain Defoe did for this young fan was more than anyone could have ever imagined.
Bradley was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma when he was just 18 months old, and fought it successfully for 2 years until he relapsed in 2016 and had to do it all over again. At just 5 years old, trying to explain to a child how life-threatening his illness was must have been the toughest thing his parents had ever endured, but they remained strong and determined to prevail.
Unfortunately, the type of medicine and cure for Bradley’s illness is not available in the UK, so Bradley’s parents set up a fundraising website to try and raise enough money to send Bradley abroad in order to receive the right treatment.
The campaign raised over £700,000 but agonisingly, and to the disbelief of the whole country, the cancer spread and worsened with every day, meaning there was no chance Bradley could ever receive treatment.
Bradley’s favourite thing in the world was football. He loved Sunderland and, in particular, their star striker Jermain Defoe. Bradley was a regular mascot for Sunderland and struck a particular bond with Defoe. The two became best friends, and would walk out onto the pitch together to a warm welcome from the home fans before matches.
Defoe would also go and visit Bradley whenever he was feeling down and would spend the entire day in his company, reading him stories and playing games with him. Fans would come to the game and produce banners in Bradley’s honour and break out in chants about him to show their support. There is no doubt that his determination and energy won the hearts of thousands of football fans inside the stadium.
Jermain and Bradley’s relationship was remarkable. It showed Defoe wasn’t just showing his love for the cameras, he genuinely cared and loved Bradley. One day, after leaving the hospital when he visited Bradley, Defoe said: “Bradley is in my prayers every night. He is an amazing young man and I look forward to seeing him again.”
This was a heart-warming statement from the Sunderland player and really portrayed the connection between the two. Jermain and Bradley’s most anticipated appearance came at Wembley ahead of England’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.
Defoe, who was appearing in an England shirt for the first time in four years, led Bradley out of the tunnel and onto the pitch, surrounded by 78,000 fans. The noise was too much for Bradley as he was seen covering his ears, a sight to behold. In a game which saw Defoe score on his return to international football, he struggled to keep his emotions in check. After the game Bradley said: “It was a fairytale occasion: I have had an amazing day and I will never forget Jermain. I love him so much.”
The scans that Bradley had last Christmas revealed that his cancer was terminal and that he could not go abroad for treatment. This is what hurt Defoe and Bradley’s family the most, and really brought a tear to hundreds of thousands across the nation. One of the last Facebook updates from Bradley’s family was a visit from Defoe at the hospital to see his best friend one more time and to say his goodbyes.
In an emotional press conference in Bradley’s final days, Defoe said: “He will always be in my heart for the rest of my life. There isn’t a day that goes past when I don’t wake up and check my phone or think about little Bradley.”
At this point, Defoe had switched clubs to Bournemouth, but that didn’t stop him from visiting Bradley in his final days. A few days after this press conference, Bradley passed away.
This whole story shows how brilliant a person Jermain Defoe was throughout Bradley’s fight and that he truly loved and cared for the young boy. Despite all of Defoe’s contributions, he was not nominated for Sports Personality of the Year, but one thing that he will never be questioned over was his unconditional love for one special fan who he will never forget.