Tony Dewhurst talks to former Burnley striker Joe Jackson who has fought a brave against leukemia and has now won a place at one of London’s most prestigious business schools with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
Shortly after being told that his Burnley career was over, Joe Jackson sat in a bare hospital side room, where a doctor shuffled some notes and then looked him straight in the eye.
“Joe, I’m afraid you have leukemia,” said the consultant.
“There is a survival chance, a fair one, but you are very ill.”
Joe’s sister had died, at the tender of 14, from a blood disease when her brother was progressing through the youth system at Turf Moor.
And in that moment, his mind was concentrated on what he had.
It was his steel clad armour plating to fight the illness in his darkest hour and with a steadfast determination to get better.
“It’s hard to believe, but I walked out of that room with my parents and we were all happy,” he says of the response to such shuddering adversity.
“It was a surreal moment - but I used it as my strength because at least I knew I could fight it.
“It defined me as a person because of what had happened to my dear sister.”
Jackson had learned his trade in the rough and tumble of junior and reserve team football at Turf Moor after his potential was spotted while playing for Furness Rovers, aged 10.
His goal scoring touch saw him awarded a professional contract in 2011, and a league debut followed on a bone-chilling April day a year later, replacing Charlie Austin with two minutes left in a 4-0 loss at Blackpool.
Joe Jackson in action for Burnley
“I was so focused, incredibly so, and I’d be at the training ground at 7am, sometimes having driven from Barrow two hours earlier, just to show the manager my commitment.
“I’d say to Eddie Howe (Then Burnley manager) : ‘What can I do to get in your team?
“He told me what I needed to become.
“I can’t explain the feeling of running out that day in a claret shirt, though.
“It was a fleeting moment, but it didn’t matter one jot.
“It was everything that I’d worked for since I’d come to Burnley, having that dream of becoming a professional footballer from when I’d kick a ball against a street wall.
He added: “I was in a bubble of pride at Blackpool.
“My parents, grandmother and all my friends were there, and a couple of Burnley fans even asked for my autograph.
“I thought, ‘Wow’ this is beyond a dream.
“But the cancer stopped everything.”
The 25-year-old is a walking, talking epitome of the power of a positive attitude.
He needed it in spades, though, resolving to meet the challenge head on, with grace and without bitterness or resentment.
“When I got the cancer diagnosis I was in Christie Hospital in 48 hours and for five weeks I couldn’t leave my room,” he said.
“It was the worst time in my life, going through chemotherapy, injections in every part of my body, and losing my hair.
“Then I had terrible headaches, unable to look at the light or the TV.
“They found eight blood clots on my brain and the doctor told me, ‘Joe, the next 12 hours are crucial.’
“It didn’t look great. They kept shining a light in my eyes, which was what happened to my sister because she had a bleed on her brain before she died.
“That was awful and hard to bear.
“They all stayed in my room that night, my parents and girlfriend, sat by my bedside.”
Slowly, but surely, he clawed his way back and started on the marathon road to recovery, encouraged by the love of his parents and friends.
Joe Jackson's bruised body following cancer treatment and post recovery for a modelling shoot
“I felt as if I had been broken down into nothing and it changed my whole perspective on life.
“It was like a child having to re-build his life again.”
Cancer is a disease that darkens many people’s doors but instead of slamming on the brakes, Joe wedged his foot firmly on the accelerator.
First, he introduced a support initiative at Christie Hospital called Hope – and then he flexed his muscles as a male model.
“I spoke to ten patients who were having treatment with me, and they all said that they would be willing to get involved, to speak to sufferers about their cancer journey, and Christie’s loved the idea,” said Joe, who was given the all clear from the disease in January.
“I’ve become a Christie Hospital volunteer and that makes me very proud.
“I spoke about this image of how people perceive you after cancer.”
Joe has two pictures on his telephone that he looks at every day.
The first one shows his bruised and battered body, having piled on the pounds during exhausting cancer treatment.
The next photograph depicts a bronzed Adonis emerging from the waves on some faraway beach, with the expression of a man who had not just beaten the odds but hammered them into submission.
“I’ve got this philosophy that you can achieve anything,” said Joe.
“When my treatment finished I was in the gymnasium every day and signed for a model agency, and my pictures were published in New York, London and Manchester.
“Whatever you do and whoever you are, you don’t have to be born extremely gifted.
“Hard graft and belief can help you overcome anything.
“Nothing is impossible.”
Now Joe is celebrating another personal triumph after winning a coveted place at one of London’s most prestigious business schools as he aims for a career in the city as an investment banker.
But, he says, that without the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association he could not have achieved his personal goal.
“After the first year of chemotherapy I was able to return to a form of normality and decided to take on the challenge a Financial Mathematics degree,” said Joe, who has been accepted to study for a Masters Degree in Finance at Cass Business School at the University of London.
“For the last two years of my studies, a lot of it done when I was recovering from cancer, I’d received the top academic prize.
“And when I got my results this summer I’d landed the highest grade of all.
“I was so incredibly proud, but also a little daunted about the extortionate cost of living and studying in London.
“I couldn’t afford it, but then a friend suggested that I contact the Professional Footballers’ Association as they’d helped him.
“They didn’t know my story but when I spoke to Paul Raven and Pat Lally in Manchester they were brilliant and, now, the PFA have agreed to help me out with some of the cost of my university fees.
“Although my career as a professional footballer was a short one, I wanted to say how much I appreciate the support of this great union to ex-players.
“They do incredible work, a lot of it unheralded, and I can’t speak highly enough of them.
“I feel a sense of great pride that I may have a role to play in showing former footballers, who take a non-traditional route to university, can still achieve at the very highest levels academically and may exceed their own expectations about what they are capable of.
“I really couldn’t have done it without the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association and they’ve given me the opportunity to take another step on the ladder.
“The fight against cancer was hard, but winning a place at university, against all the odds, is my greatest achievement.”