MELBOURNE fan favourite Aaron vandenBerg has brought an end to his time in the AFL, urging players not to fear retirement and a life outside of the game.
Having left the Demons in September to explore opportunities elsewhere, vandenBerg garnered interest from multiple interstate clubs but recently informed them he would not be continuing his career into 2022.
vandenBerg will instead move into the corporate world and is on the verge of joining an accounting and professional services firm, while he will play in the VAFA for Old Xaverians and continue his part-time studies at Melbourne University.
Speaking to AFL.com.au on Friday, vandenBerg said he appreciated every aspect of his seven-year stint at Melbourne but said it was important for players to acknowledge there is a life beyond footy.
"There was certainly some interest from AFL clubs," vandenBerg said.
"It's hard to understand if clubs are trying to let you down easily or if they're being brutally honest with you, but salary cap and list spots often came up as reasons for me not being able to go to certain football clubs.
"There definitely was a level of interest between a few clubs, particularly a few interstate clubs. But, for me and where I'm at … to move my life interstate at this stage, it just didn't seem like a viable option for me.
"Things are moving so well for me outside of football. Don't get me wrong, I love the AFL and everything it's provided for me, but there is something post-football. The more I stewed on that and thought about it, the more I realised I was ready to make an exit from the game.
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"I spoke to my manager and said, 'let's stop fielding calls from AFL clubs'. I didn't want to waste anyone's time and take interviews or give them hope that I might come to them and then make the decision that I wanted to retire.
"I talk to a lot of players and they stay in the game because they're really scared to make the exit out. Even though I had the ability to keep playing, it felt like the right move and I'm excited about it."
vandenBerg was drafted to Melbourne in 2014, playing 52 games for the club across seven seasons. But he managed just four in the side's premiership campaign this year, having been left frustrated by a number of injury setbacks.
"It was very much a bittersweet season for me personally, and there's no doubt it was for a few other senior players, having seen the success that the team achieved but technically not being part of that feeling on the day," vandenBerg said.
"For the pressure that mounted in 2019 and 2020, to see the team overcome that and achieve the ultimate success in one of the most trying seasons that I've been a part of, it was fantastic to watch."
vandenBerg's career was plagued by injury, including a 680-day spell on the sidelines between 2016 and 2018 when a stress fracture in his heel turned into Haglund's Disease and left him with a series of foot, ankle and Achilles setbacks.
But the rehab process helped him strike up an important friendship with former teammate Pat McKenna, who was battling hamstring issues of his own, and inspired a remarkable return in late 2018.
vandenBerg played the final seven games of the season and took on a crucial role in the team's journey to the preliminary final, becoming an instant hit among Demons fans for his unrelenting attack on the contest.
"I came back from a really difficult stint in rehab and I did that with a very small team of people in Pat McKenna, (high-performance boss) Daniel Cross, (physio) Joel Ames and a few others," vandenBerg said.
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"To get through that really difficult period of 2016 and 2017, then to get to play some footy and taste the experience of finals footy that Melbourne hadn't had for a while, it was probably my fondest memory.
"That's the thing about football. As dark as rehab got and as lonely as it got, thankfully when I was at my worst and my father passed away in 2018, I had Pat. He was instrumental in both my mental health and my football health. Him and I, we created a pretty special bond together and we finally got back and trained together and played together. I had a great journey with Pat."
Now, vandenBerg is eager to begin the next phase of his career, which also includes the continued running of his late father's family business Bega Fasteners and Industrial Supplies in New South Wales.
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"It was time for me to move on and start the next phase of my life," vandenBerg said.
"It was an extremely difficult decision for me, particularly given how much I'd sacrificed to get healthy again and finally be able to play at the elite level, but it's a decision that I'm happy and proud to have made.
"I'm really excited about what the next few years look like for me outside of the AFL."