Bournemouth striker Jermain Defoe said Bradley Lowery will “always be in my heart” as he tearfully spoke about the terminally ill six-year-old.
Ex-Sunderland player Defoe has formed a close friendship with the Black Cats fan and mascot, who has neuroblastoma and is receiving end-of-life care.
He asked for two minutes to compose himself when asked about Bradley at a Cherries news conference on Thursday.
“He’s obviously struggling. I can say it’s a matter of days,” said Defoe, 34.
He wiped away tears as he added: “It’s been hard because I have kept this in for so long.”
Defoe has pledged to keep in touch with the family, from Blackhall Colliery, near Hartlepool, after his move to Bournemouth. He has described his relationship with Bradley as the “highlight of his season”.
“I speak to the family every day. I was with him a few days ago and it was tough to see him suffer like that,” said the England international.
“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.
“His love is genuine and I can see it in his eyes when he looks at me.”
Bradley led out the England team at Wembley with his “best mate” Defoe for the World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in March.
Defoe, whose career also includes spells at West Ham, Tottenham and Portsmouth, has supported Bradley in his fight – their special bond beginning last September when Bradley, then five, led Sunderland out against Everton in the Premier League.
Supporters of both clubs sang “there’s only one Bradley Lowery”, before a banner with the message “we’re with you, Bradley” was carried around the stadium.
Defoe said there was a “connection straight away” between the pair, adding: “I have so many pictures around the house – even the house I’m in now and I’ve only been in there a few days. There’s pictures of me and Brad – going out for the first time against Everton and then throughout the season.
“England was special when Joe Hart said to me ‘JD walk the team out with Brad’ and he turned round in the national anthem and grabbed me.
“All these special moments. I just feel blessed.”