In September, Sunderland fan Bradley Lowery, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2013, was the club’s mascot for the game against Everton at the Stadium of Light in the north east of England.
Fans of both clubs chanted Lowery’s name in the fifth minute — a number to match his age — before a “We’re with you, Bradley'” banner was unfurled.
But for Lowery, getting the opportunity to meet his hero Jermain Defoe was arguably the most thrilling aspect of the day. And the player felt a similar sentiment.
“As soon as he saw me, he ran over to me and jumped on my lap,” recalls Defoe in an interview with CNN World Sport.
“I think probably from that moment, it was sort of overwhelming, because I was like ‘oh wow.’ And that sort of love he gave me from day one was just like, that instant moment, was sort of like when we bonded. It was just a great feeling.”
The two of them have, at times, been inseparable with Defoe supporting Lowery as the youngster has battled cancer.
In February, Defoe and his Sunderland teammates visited Lowery in hospital, with the young boy falling asleep in the 34-year-old striker’s arms.
“He said to me ‘do you want to get into the bed?'” recalls the visibly moved Defoe.
“I was like, ‘OK, no problem.’ So, we sort of sat on the bed, and at this point he was really tired, because obviously it was a long day.
“We played with some toys and stuff like that and he told me about his girlfriend Poppy which was kind of funny.
“And then, literally, he just said to his mom: ‘Can you turn the lights off?’ And he sort of like put the blanket over me because he wanted me to be warm. He put the blanket over me, gave me a cuddle and he fell asleep.
“You know with some things it’s difficult to find the exact words to describe how I felt at that time because I didn’t really know what to do. I gave him a cuddle and I just felt good.”
‘Enjoy every moment’
Last month the bond between Defoe and Lowery grew even stronger.
Lowery led out the England team at Wembley Stadium for a World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.
Though goalkeeper Joe Hart was captain, he swapped places with Defoe in the tunnel so they could have the honor of leading the teams out, a gesture not lost on the striker.
“Joe Hart said to me ‘you go in the front and walk Bradley out,'” recalls Defoe.
“All the lads know the bond between me and Bradley and how important it is for him to be happy and enjoy every moment … I mean, these moments will live with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget all the times he’s walked out with me.”
While Sunderland is looking likely to be relegated to England’s second tier, Defoe has been in the form of his life, scoring 14 goals in the league and winning a recall to the international team.
He is at pains to emphasize how Lowery is on his mind whenever he takes to the pitch.
“To be honest, every time I play I always think about him, even in the England game,” said Defoe, who scored in the 2-0 win over Lithuania.
“I just thought, you know what, I love scoring goals and I want to play well for my country and for my family, but every time I go out on the pitch it’s always at the back of my mind. I want to do well, I want to score a goal for little Bradley.”
Sadly for Bradley, the road ahead does not look promising.
His mother recently revealed that the treatment Lowery has been receiving is not working, and that they “don’t know how long it will be before the cancer wins, but what we do know is that we will continue to make memories and enjoy our super hero every second of the day.”
An upcoming trip to Disney World is in the works, and Defoe’s diary continues to fill up.
“All I can do is try and spend as much time with him as possible and that’s what I’m going to try and do from now until the end of the season, just try and see him when I can,” explains Defoe.
“He’s got a birthday party soon, which I’ll be going to with my girlfriend, so we’re looking forward to that. But just to be around him, just to try and make him happy with however long he’s got.”