The JLT Community Series is often a happy time for most AFL players.
It signals the end of the gruelling stage of pre-season, while providing an opportunity for individuals to stake their claim in Round 1 teams.
In the 2017 pre-season, Melbourne forward Aaron vandenBerg was looking to continue his impressive start to his AFL career, which had culminated in 28 senior games in his first two seasons.
However, after pulling up sore in one of his heels during the first JLT Community Series games, vandenBerg’s opening round preparations were put on hold.
As frustrating as missing Round 1 with a foot injury would be, vandenBerg’s heel soreness quickly turned from a few weeks on the sidelines, to his season being over with a serious condition.
Then Melbourne Rehabilitation Coach Alex Sakadjian remembers how continual issues during the early stages of vandenBerg’s rehabilitation, raised alarm bells amongst performance and medical staff that something wasn’t quite right.
“We started rehabbing his foot and he kept having a few ongoing issues throughout those rehab phases with his heel and around his Achilles area,” Sakadjian said.
“He had a couple of operations and we tried reloading him a few times and it sort of just kept getting sore. We ended up having a few different opinions from specialists and surgeons, and it was then we picked up that he had this Haglund’s defect on his heel, which was causing friction and issues around his Achilles.”
The Haglund’s syndrome which vandenBerg contracted was an abnormality of the bone in the back of the heel, and that caused the Achilles tendon to run over the bump and cause friction.
After having surgery to remove the section of bone which caused him so many problems, vandenBerg began the slow process of rehabilitation.
“Thankfully, his rehab began to go a lot smoother than it had been, but then you’re also fighting with the issue that he’s been out of the game and training for so long, so his rehab drags out even longer because of the time he’s missed.
“It’s a pretty serious injury and you have to respect that in its early days.”
While some may wallow in despair with the news that a slow recovery was likely due to such a rare injury, vandenBerg was the opposite in his attitude towards returning to senior football.
Sakadjian praised vandenBerg’s ability to follow the right processes along his rehabilitation.
“He was extremely diligent,” he said.
“He’s a guy that has his off field and life away from footy sorted as well, so he’s pretty organised and diligent in that fashion. So I think those characteristics held him in good stead. We really couldn’t have asked for more from his end.”
vandenBerg’s traits of working hard to overcome tough situations was seen firsthand by his NEAFL Coach Chris Rourke.
Rourke, who had vandenBerg under his wing at the Ainslie Football Club from 2011, right until he was drafted in 2014 with selection No. 2 in the Rookie Draft, says the former factory worker had learnt the hard way about getting the best out of his own body.
“He moved in with some of our really good leaders in the club like Dale Walker and Rob Tilley. They educated him and he got stuck into training,” Rourke said.
“We worked him pretty hard. The club bought him a push bike and he started riding it to work and he just got himself super fit and once he got fit, there was no stopping him.”
After vandenBerg learnt to prepare his body well and overcome fitness issues, he immediately saw dividends, culminating in winning Ainslie’s best and fairest in 2013 and 2014.
It was after vandenBerg’s second best and fairest award which prompted Rourke to think his star player could make it in the AFL.
“I thought, ‘Geez this bloke keeps improving,’ and he wasn’t in a completely professional role. I thought if someone could get a hold of him, I reckon he could take it to the next level,” Rourke said.
“I rang up the Melbourne Football Club and George Stone, who was their former Development Coach, who I had some dealings with at the Swans and said, ‘Mate, I wouldn’t mind it if you had a look at this kid.’
“They came and had a look at him and he’s just gone from strength to strength.”
Despite only three VFL appearances, vandenBerg made a swift return to AFL football last week but that comes as no surprise to those who know the 26-year-old.
Alex Sakadjian says vandenBerg’s application along with a strong directive from medical and high performance staff made his return to AFL football a success.
“It’s a credit to Daniel Cross who is our current rehab coach, who is the end stage rehab from a footy skills and footy load point of view, it was extremely well run and well-coordinated,” he explained.
“He’s gone through a fair period of training before we’ve allowed him to play games. Even with the three games he played in the VFL, he wouldn’t have got picked if he wasn’t playing well. Obviously the match committee felt he was ready to play AFL football.
“It wasn’t handed to him, he did a lot of work to earn that game over the weekend.”
Now, after a testing 18 months after injury, he finds himself in a promising Melbourne team which is set on breaking a 12-year finals drought.
Rather than just make up the numbers though, his former coach believes vandenBerg has the ability to make an impact if the Demons are to make a long-awaited appearance in September.
“He’s played in some really good finals for me,” Rourke said.
“He just seems to rise to the challenge, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a bit of an x-factor for them.”