30/05/2024

Aaron Heppell leaned on his brother Dyson throughout his VFL career. (Picture: essendonfc.com.au)

Aaron Heppell and brother Dyson do it all together. One of the few things they couldn't achieve, however, was playing AFL footy together for Essendon.

After his retirement from Essendon’s VFL team, The Inner Sanctum sat down to chat with former captain Aaron Heppell. Read part one of our interview series with Heppell here.

Dyson Heppell once described his younger brother Aaron as a “pretty cruisey knacker.”

Born three years apart, the Heppell brothers grew up together, played footy together at Leongatha, and are as close as ever to this very day.

Aaron says he and his brother do share a few fair similarities, particularly on the football field.

“I still think we have a number of similar attributes… we’re both heavily lacking speed!,” he laughs.

They travel together, they party together, they even sported the same shocking hairdo together for far too long. The Heppell mop top is as iconic as the name itself.

One thing the brothers never managed to do, however, was play AFL football together.

Dyson was a highly touted player coming into his draft year, picked by the Essendon Football Club with its first round selection, pick eight in the 2010 national draft.

He would win the Rising Star award in his first season, polling 44 of a possible 45 votes to finish ahead of fellow star mids in West Coast’s Luke Shuey and Geelong’s Mitch Duncan.

Aaron seemed to be on the same path to follow in his brother’s footsteps, putting together a strong season in the middle for the Gippsland Power in the TAC Cup in 2013.

Draft night came and went, the younger Heppell ultimately going undrafted by all 18 teams.

The comparisons between the two were both a blessing and a curse, Aaron believes. It took him a number of years to step out of his brother’s shadow in his own mind.

“I probably put a lot more pressure on myself as an 18-year-old going through TAC Cup,” Heppell explained.

“Obviously when Dys got picked up and had a bit of a breakout year and was becoming an established player in the AFL, and me as a 17-year-old trying to see where I stand and trying to tick the right boxes to follow the same path, I probably compared myself a lot more to him and tried to model my game around Dys.”

Aaron (L) and Dyson (R) Heppell with Dyson’s dogs Ziggy and Flip. (Picture: @dysonheppell/Instagram)

Being picked by Essendon’s VFL team at the beginning of the 2014 season, Heppell allowed himself to flourish as his own player.

“Moving through my VFL career, 20 or 21, those kind of years, I probably stopped comparing myself to Dys and tried to become my own player and focus on my strengths as a player rather than try and mould myself into what Dys was,” he said.

Draft night every year from then would be a night not full of expectations, Heppell never quite getting his hopes up that he would find his way onto an AFL list.

2016 saw ASADA hand down a ban on 34 current and former Essendon players, allowing an opportunity for top-up players to prove themselves on Essendon’s list.

This included Dyson, in a year that he and his family will never forget.

To us, it’s my brother,
it’s a son, it’s family.

Heppell played pre-season games with the Bombers, coming agonisingly close to his AFL dream.

“I never went into draft night with that expectation that I was going to get picked up, putting that expectation on my shoulders,” he said.

“At the end of the 2016 year, I did get my hopes up a little bit.

“I’d spoken to Essendon a number of times and they were looking… they pump you up and make you feel good. They were very close to taking me.

“Turns out, their list management and whatever happened, they didn’t quite squeeze me in. I did feel like I got pretty close.”

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While recruiters continued to draw comparisons between the two brothers, a potential factor as to why Heppell was never drafted, he continued to learn and grow from his brother.

“[Dyson] was the number one factor on why I chose to go to Essendon in the first place,” Heppell said.

“[He was] a real support for me, especially in my younger years at the club, taking me in on AFL training days, doing extra craft with me, introducing myself to a lot of different coaches and players, and providing me with a lot of opportunities to expand and enhance my game that a regular VFL player wouldn’t get.

“I was living with him when I first moved to Melbourne as well, so he wasn’t just a footy mentor but a life mentor as well.

“Living in the same house, watching how he eats, watching how he prepares, watching how he trains… it definitely made a big impact on my footy.”

The supplements saga and becoming ‘one club’

The Heppell family found themselves at the centre of Essendon’s supplements saga, the investigation into the club’s injection programs beginning in 2013.

By the time the official bans were handed out in 2016 to the 34 players, Dyson Heppell had become as synonymous as the red sash with the Essendon Football Club.

Aaron had a front row seat to how it all played out, watching his brother and the club he loved go through constant media attention and scrutiny.

“We definitely rode every bump as a family together,” Heppell said.

“The hard thing was how long it dragged on for. There always seemed to be a final date then something else would pop up. For a number of years at that time, we didn’t know when it was going to end.

“You’d look at the back page of the paper and for a lot of people it was the Essendon Bombers and Dyson Heppell, whatever.

“To us, it’s my brother, it’s a son, it’s family.

“Each day you didn’t know what was going to be written about your brother, some of your good mates at the club. It was definitely a demanding time, and a time of uncertainty, both within the club and the league as a whole.”

Forever the optimist, Heppell sees the upside the banning of players provided the Essendon Football Club.

Young players including Zach Merrett, Darcy Parish and Aaron Francis benefitted highly from the leadership of Brendon Goddard, while the top-up players and VFL-listed boys were able to spread their wings.

Heppell in particular enjoyed one of his best years yet in the sash, winning his first of three best and fairests.

“The ban year was my breakout year as a player, when a lot of the established guys were out of the AFL which meant more AFL-listed guys got more AFL opportunity which meant more VFL-listed guys got more VFL opportunity,” he said.

“If you look at it in that kind of light, I definitely think that the players being banned provided guys like myself, [Anthony] McDonald-Tipungwuti a lot more opportunity than they would have seen had that not happened.”

It was a period of great change, and Essendon would soon be making it’s first foray into women’s football.

The club fielded its first ever women’s side in the VFLW in 2018. While they struggled on-field to get wins on the board, it was off-field that Essendon benefitted the most.

Heppell with Essendon VFLW best and fairest winner Hayley Bullas in 2018. (Picture: @essendonfc/Twitter)

Heppell and partner Phoebe formed a strong bond in particular with current Essendon VFLW vice-captain Courtney Ugle.

“We had a really big focus on that, and I know they still do now, on making sure it’s a one club feel,” Heppell said.

“The AFL, the VFL, the VFLW, it all falls under the one banner, we’re all the one club. That was a really big focus, especially between us and the VFLW, that we do functions together, train together, we’re mates outside of football as well.

“Which makes it such a nicer environment to come to. Instead of having 25 guys on our VFL list, now we have 40 girls and the AFL guys, so it turns from a club of 25 to a club of nearly 100 people.

“It’s a much nicer environment and a much nicer social environment too.”

Continued in part three.

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