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Laureus 2018-19: Footballer Joe Thompson talks about beating cancer twice, realising long-standing Wembley dream and more

By now, the world knows that Joe Thompson is a fighter. The English footballer, who plays in the midfield for League One side Rochdale, is a fighter on and off the field. He was released from Manchester United academy before his 16th birthday because he was too small, but that didn't deter him from becoming a professional footballer, with a career spanning more than 10 years. He was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer — Hodgkin's lymphoma — first in 2013 and it returned again in 2017, but that didn't deter his will to live.

After beating cancer for the second time, Thompson made an emotional return to play for Rochdale in their FA Cup replay against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley, realising a dream of playing at the stadium.

That's not it. Thompson's shining moment in his footballing career came months after he returned to the field. On the final day of League One, Thompson scored against Charlton to script a remarkable victory, helping his team to avoid relegation. Life certainly came full circle for Thompson that day, given that he had started his professional journey with Rochdale.

His inspiring life story has won the Laureus Sporting Moment of the Month for May and now is now in contention for the Sporting Moment of the Year award. Days before the ceremony, which is set to take place in Monaco from 18 February, Thompson spoke about his difficult childhood, that goal against Charlton, realising his Wembley dream and more.

Edited excerpts follow:

What does it mean to you to be in contention for the Laureus Sporting Moment of the Year?

 Laureus 2018-19: Footballer Joe Thompson talks about beating cancer twice, realising long-standing Wembley dream and more

On final day of League One, Thompson scored against Charlton to script a remarkable victory, helping his team to avoid relegation. Reuters

I suppose it's quite overwhelming in a way. To be mentioned in and around some of the names at the Awards is incredible. I’m humbled, it's a true privilege.

Can you take us back to that moment that you stepped on to the pitch at Wembley, what were your emotions?

They were all over the place, (I had) mixed emotions. I think I'd probably given up on ever playing at Wembley, especially after the second time when I got diagnosed with cancer. I think my teammates did well in the FA Cup and took Tottenham Hotspur to a replay after a really good first game. Yeah, although we got beat in the end by quite a considerable margin, I think for me it was quite a proud moment. And also, for anyone associated with the club, that gave a lot of people a lot of inspiration.

Was that the moment you felt truly cured?

I think that was probably the moment where I realised, you know what, all the hard work, the pain, the tears, the dark days, had all been worth it. Like I say, it was a relief. I just felt a bit like a gladiator in a way: Coming into the arena, underdogs, chips were down, against all the odds. But I had made it and I was here and I was going to enjoy it and savour the moment.

Another incredible moment in your journey was on 5 May last year with your last-minute goal against Charlton. Take us through your memories of that moment.

Yeah, that was a couple of months after Wembley. I managed to get myself fit and available to start really playing games and getting minutes under my belt. But we were struggling. I think the FA Cup hindered us a way in the League and we were facing relegation, but it was kind of along the lines of cometh the momentcometh the man. Thankfully for me I got put on in the 65th minute, and four minutes later, after first two touches, I was able to score the winning goal that kept us up.

Again, that moment just reinforced everything that I'd been through and achieved. My family, as well, could see how happy I was, and I remember the moment, too, When the ball hit the back of the net, everything seemed to be quiet. I was at ease, I’d kind of climbed the mountain, and I was just looking at the views in a way.

And then the noise and the roar; I think anyone that was in the stadium or watched it on TV that day, the emotion was a big thing. A lot of people had understood and heard my story and everything I had been through. Everyone was pleased and over the moon for me.

Do you think that moment was the highlight of your career?

Most definitely. Even if I went on to do more in the game, I don't think I would get a moment like that. I’ve been fortunate to score on my debut, score a hat-trick, but that moment, it was just so perfect. It was just so fitting because probably nine, ten months prior, I could barely walk and was coming out of hospital a shadow of the man that walked in.

You've mentioned that your autobiography — 'Darkness and Light' — came from a sad place. You spoke about the physical abuse your mother endured from your father, rejections in football and surviving cancer. Did you have any apprehensions in telling your story to the world? These are intimate details of your life.

No. I think, like I say, it came from a sad place. I was writing notes down when I thought, if the worst comes to the worst, what would I want my wife — and maybe my daughter when she got a little bit older — to know about where I was at.

I managed to come out of the hospital and then I did a talk for Sheffield Under 23s, and the response I got from that was incredible, some young lads who maybe had not experienced what I had been through or not kind of lived life to a certain extent. So for me, the book is just a natural progression. People were telling me, I should do one and write one, and it took me and Alex Fenn, the ghost writer, probably about 15 months.

It's quite an emotional journey, but now, it seems like everybody knows my life, so I'm an open book. I'm an open chapter, and yeah, I don't have any apprehensions with public speaking and trying to inspire the next generation in sports, and also in other areas. It’s something that I'm really passionate about and want to go in post football. I think the book just goes hand-in-hand because it is inspiring. It's empowering, and it just lets you know, no matter the odds, whatever hand you're dealt, you can triumph, in a way.

What would it mean to you to win the Laureus Sporting Moment of the Year in Monaco?

For me, I think I'd obviously be immensely proud. Look, cancer hits one in three, one in two, and unfortunately those are the stats. If I am able to reach out through an award for getting recognition for what I've achieved after the adversity that I've overcome, that is an incredibly powerful message to be sent to anybody who has cancer, or anything else in particular, but yeah, it would be amazing.

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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 23:01:36 IST