The Bournemouth footballer talks to us about the importance of helping the community, and how modern-day sportspeople can be heroes both on and off the field of play
When it comes to determination, a positive attitude and a never-give-up spirit, there are few footballers quite like Jermain Defoe.
Many players think about calling time on their career by the time they reach 34. The Bournemouth and England forward, however, sometimes looks like he’s just getting started.
Perhaps that’s why Jermain hit it off with brave Bradley Lowery: they had more than a love of football in common; they were kindred spirits.
We caught up with Jermain several weeks before Bradley’s passing, and the footballer’s love, compassion and kindness towards the boy was palpable. At just six years old, Bradley tragically succumbed to neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer, in July 2017. But the Sunderland fan will live on in the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere, thanks largely to two things: his big, beaming smile, and his friendship with Jermain, his favourite player and best pal.
Jermain, who has since swapped the red and white of Sunderland for the red and black of Bournemouth, says the friendship kicked in “from the first time I saw him”. The pair would often meet up at matches, with Jermain regularly visiting the poorly youngster at his home. It was a friendship that served as a warm reminder that many modern-day footballers are capable of more than just heroics on the pitch.
Speaking on the night Bradley was named a Child of Courage at the Pride of North East awards, in partnership with TSB, in May, Jermain says of their first meeting: “He just ran over to me and jumped on my lap. Just the way he looked at me, I was taken aback.
“Just from that moment – and since then – he’ll come to a game and, if he’s not feeling too well, he’ll just sit in a box. He came to the England game [vs Lithuania in March]. Every time I see him his face just lights up and it’s such an unbelievable feeling, so all I can do really is just try and spend as much time with him as possible. You know, it’s good for me.”
Jermain and Bradley seemed to have a positive influence on each other – two of life’s fighters united. While it would be remiss to compare the vagaries of being a professional footballer to the brave battle of a young boy, Jermain knows what it is to dig deep.
Having shone at West Ham, Spurs and Portsmouth, it seemed the Beckton-born striker’s career was heading in a downward trajectory when he ended up at Major League Soccer outfit Toronto FC in 2014. With all due respect to the MLS, it’s a place where many European players look to wind down their playing days, rather than use it as a springboard for greatness.
However, thanks to a move to Sunderland in 2015, Jermain proved that there was more to come from him. Much more, in fact.
A constant desire to improve, a love of training and a determination to remain in peak physical condition paid off upon Jermain’s return to the Premier League, with the forward scoring 34 goals in 87 games for the Black Cats across two seasons; that’s some going when you consider that they were relegated from England’s top flight in 2017.
No wonder there has been a recall to the England set-up for Jermain, with many hoping he will feature in the 2018 World Cup. The forward is proof that, as long as you’re prepared to work hard, age is nothing but a number.
The move to Sunderland, of course, was notable for something beyond football: it resulted in Jermain’s friendship with terminally ill Bradley. The two met when Bradley was a mascot at a Sunderland game, and working with the community is something Jermain has long felt passionate about. This is a player who gives his all both on and off the field.
Jermain explains: “My mum has always stressed the importance of having a gift and being blessed and, when you can, give something back because, at the end of the day, you have to appreciate what you have.”
Granted, some modern-day footballers can get caught up in the trappings of fame and fortune. But, at 34, there is something more rounded and grounded about Jermain. His close bond with both his mother and late nan and grandad have served him well. Both his nan and grandad worked in factories in London’s East End, having emigrated from St Lucia, and Jermain believes that’s where the career-defining work ethic comes from. He explains: “From a young age I’ve always known, if you want something in life, you’ve got to work hard for it.”
Jermain even has a tattoo for his nan on his arm as a daily inspiration. “It gives me strength,” he says.
It means that nothing has ever been taken for granted. “I’d like to think I’m still the same person that grew up in east London, on the streets with my friends playing football, and just being lucky enough to get the opportunity to go on and score goals in the Premier League and score goals for my country.
“I realise how blessed I am.
“I believe I was meant to meet Bradley and his family. These things are meant to happen. He was meant to be in my life, I was meant to be in his life.
“When I see him, I get such a warm feeling. It’s so important to give something back. And I’m not going to stand there and speak like I’m the only footballer that does it. There’s a lot of footballers: a lot of my friends do a lot of charity work in the communities for different clubs, in different countries, and it’s so important to do this.
He adds: “I remember when I was at Tottenham, I did a lot of work in the community, as did a lot of my fellow colleagues. For instance, [ex-midfielder] Jermaine Jenas with the knife crime stuff that he’s doing, which is really good.”
Street crime is something that’s especially close to Jermain’s heart. In 2009, his brother Gavin died in hospital four days after being attacked in the street. Jermain says: “I lost my brother Gavin to an incident on the streets so I understand, I’m aware of what goes on. And I like to think at some stage a lot of these things will just stop.”
Jermain stresses the importance of self-belief and having a goal. “If you’ve got a passion and you’ve got a dream, you’ve just got to go for it. And even if someone says, ‘You can’t do this,’ you have got to believe in your heart that ‘I’m good enough to do this.’ And try and stay away from the crowd and think about the bigger picture, because that’s what I did.”
He did indeed. Jermain Defoe should serve as an inspiration to us all. He’s proof that as long as you follow a passion, work hard, believe in yourself and never give up, regardless of your circumstance, then anything is possible. A 35-year-old leading the line for England at World Cup 2018? Bet against it at your peril.
For more information about the Bradley Lowery campaign, visit bradleylowerysfight.org.uk
*Jermain Defoe was speaking before the death of Bradley Lowery.