As a captain, Dyson Heppell faced a steeper learning curve than most.
Thrown into the fire as Essendon’s skipper at just 24 years of age, he needed strong mentors and found some at the Bombers in his predecessor Jobe Watson and former chairman David Evans.
He also found some helping hands from outside the club. They would be familiar faces to football fans, and they may come as a surprise to some.
Speaking with AFLPA CEO Paul Marsh for the ‘Captain’s Call’ podcast, Heppell said that the two opposition captains helped him through a tough time earlier this year.
“Scotty Pendlebury, whether he knows it or not, is a good mentor of mine and I speak to him a fair bit… Trent Cotchin reached out and I spoke to him on a few occasions as well,” Heppell told AFLPlayers.com.au.
The Bombers suffered a number of upset losses in their 2-6 start to the season, a situation both Cotchin and Pendlebury have found themselves in before.
“We went through a four or five week period where we’d had a real flat spot, losing some games where we supposedly should have won, and that’s when Trent and Pendles reached out,” Heppell said.
It would be easy for any player to get down on themselves during a tough stretch of results. As captain, Heppell knew that he needed to keep both himself and his teammates from falling into that hole.
“I think the key is to not ride the rollercoaster of emotions, so when you do have some poor losses you don’t get really low, you just try and keep as measured and level-headed as you can,” he said.
While the start to the 2018 season was a challenge for the Bombers and for Heppell, it’s far from the biggest challenge he has faced in his career.
The Essendon supplements scandal has been well documented, and the near four-year saga saw Heppell and 11 of his teammates suspended for the full 2016 season.
Once again Heppell’s selfless nature came to the fore, as he put his own concerns aside to help out his teammates.
“Going through that with those boys, it was never a selfish individual mindset, it was all about us getting through that together,” he said.
“Very quickly after that decision I was able to get to a point where we were moving forward from here, so for me it was just about getting around the boys and making sure they were ok.”
Despite his position as a young and relatively inexperienced player, Heppell says taking on that leadership role during the suspension felt like the natural thing to do.
A resilient person by nature, he was almost immediately at ease with the decision and the suspension.
“I think being quite young and very optimistic and a very positive person, I never really had any ill feelings towards the whole situation,” he said.
Now two years removed from his suspension and in his second year as captain, the leadership that Heppell displayed back in 2016 has made him one of the most respected and well-liked figures in the league.
And with the toughest of times behind them, he says the club is now stronger than ever.
“We really held strong as a group, and that galvanised us a hell of a lot as well,” he said.
“I’m still playing with a number of the boys today, and I think that bond is really strong.”