They met for the first time in Sunderland’s dressing room at the Stadium of Light last September and said farewell in a County Durham mining village in July.
Bradley Lowery and Jermain Defoe knew each other for only 10 months, but they were 10 months that transformed both their lives.
Bradley’s was tragically brief. He was only six when he died from neuroblastoma, a rare cancer of the nervous system that was first diagnosed when he was 18 months old.
He went into remission two years later, but the cancer returned last year, prompting an appeal for money to pay for treatment in the United States.
Fundraising under the banner Bradley Lowery’s Fight was largely focused on events in and around his home village of Blackhall Colliery until the night when he was among Sunderland’s mascots for their home game against Everton.
It was the day when Bradley attracted international attention and captivated Defoe, Sunderland’s striker and the youngster’s favourite player.
Defoe has recalled:”I walked in before the game and all the other kids were quiet and shy, but he was buzzing. ‘Where’s Jermain?’ he said, and then ran over and sat on my lap.”
Sleep tight little one... 💙 pic.twitter.com/iGqLXdvlVi— Jermain Defoe OBE (@IAmJermainDefoe) July 8, 2017
Later, as he clutched Defoe’s hand in the tunnel and prepared to walk out for a match that Sunderland lost 3-0, Bradley was giving his idol goalscoring tips.
It was the start of a beautiful friendship as Defoe became heavily involved in the final months of the life of a boy who received 250,000 Christmas cards from around the world.
The player, who frequently made unpublicised, low-key visits to see Bradley at home and in hospital, recalled one meeting in Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary that did attract immense attention.
Bradley saw Defoe enter his ward and instantly ordered him to join him on the bed. “He got the covers on me and said to his mum ‘could you turn the lights off?’ He just wanted a cuddle and to go to sleep.
“I have been blessed in life and it is a great feeling to be able to make somebody so happy — a little boy who is having a tough time.”
A photograph of the scene was posted online and went viral.
Others shared Defoe’s admiration of the youngster. Everton, Sunderland’s opponents in Bradley’s first game as a mascot, contributed £200,000 to his fund.
They also made him the match mascot for the return meeting at Goodison Park in February, while he led out Everton wearing his Sunderland shirt when they faced Manchester City.
“We are so proud to have known him,” Bill Kenwright, the Everton chairman, said after Bradley died. “We kept in touch with his magnificent family throughout the weeks and months that he battled like few six-year-olds and I will treasure forever the little goodnight videos he sent to me.
“I was so privileged to know him — and his family — for the brief time I did, and I know Evertonians like me, all felt privileged that little battling Bradley Lowery, adopted us as his second club.”
Bradley was also a special guest at the BBC’s Sport Personality of the Year awards and won Match of the Day’s goal of the month competition for a penalty he placed beyond Chelsea’s Asmir Begovic before Sunderland’s game against the champions.
For Bradley, however, none of this could compare with the events of March 26 when he was invited to be England’s mascot for their World Cup qualifier against Lithuania at Wembley.
It was the night when Defoe was recalled to the national team because of his impressive form in a Sunderland team that was plummeting out of the Premier League.
Joe Hart, the England captain, insisted that the pair should lead out the team in front of a crowd of 78,000, whose applause promoted Bradley to cover his ears as he was carried onto the pitch by the striker. England won and Defoe claimed the first goal to make it a perfect occasion for Bradley, whose mother said:”When Jermaine scored, that really topped off his day.”
Bradley was back in hospital 24 hours later, although he was home again in time to celebrate his sixth birthday in May with a party that featured a funfair on the village cricket pitch.
By then, family already knew his cancer was terminal and suspected this would be his final birthday.
Defoe, transferred to Bournemouth after the end of the season, was among the visitors to his home in the final weeks of Bradley’s life and left his new club’s training camp in Spain to be at the funeral. He was joined by thousands who lined the streets of Blackhall, many wearing football shirts or costumes of the youngster’s favourite superheroes.
Defoe wore his England shirt as he walked behind the coffin carried to the church by a horse-drawn carriage and he was joined at the service by other Sunderland players and their former manager David Moyes.
As Sunderland’s club chaplain Marc Lyden-Smith told the mourners, here was a reminder that football can rise above the bad publicity that so often surrounds it.
He said:”Today the football world stands united, whatever our colours, to pay their respects to this incredible little boy with a huge personality.
“Bradley Lowery has done much more than just touch the hearts of so many football fans. His lasting legacy is that he has, with his pure and innocent love of the beautiful game, brought people together. He has been an inspiration and a friend to sports stars. He has been a light to many people in the darkness of suffering.
“He has been more than a mascot to Sunderland football club, he has been an encouragement to many and a loving smile to all of us.”
There is another legacy left by Bradley as the fundraising goes on. Everton will stage a celebrity match next month and money raised for treatment in the USA that never happened will go towards treatment for other sufferers and research into neuroblastoma, helping others in their battles.