Three-time Essendon VFL best and fairest Aaron Heppell has retired from the VFL.
The 26-year-old made the tough call to end his decorated career at the Bombers to spend more time in his hometown of Leongatha, where he'll take up a playing and assistant coach role at the Leongatha Football Club.
The younger brother of Essendon captain Dyson Heppell, Heppell followed his brother to the club ahead of the 2014 VFL season.
He won the R.A Freeman Medal as the VFL Bombers' best and fairest in 2016, '18 and '19 - the latter his first season as captain - establishing himself as one of the league's best midfielder-defenders.
Heppell said while it was hard to say goodbye, the call of the country was too compelling.
"Essendon has been a family for me the last seven years. I moved down when I was 18, with not much down here other than my two brothers," Heppell said.
"In my early days, I'd go to the club six times a week to hang out with the VFL boys, train, shoot hoops and hang out. They're my best memories.
"I got to play in three prelims as well, so we came bloody close, but they were exciting years.
"The friendships I've formed with coaches and players are going to be the hardest thing to say goodbye to, but spending more time in Gippsland during the lockdown has re-ignited my love for the country.
"I thought it'd be a good time to get out and spend more time down there. I’ve still got school mates playing for Leongatha, and I’m keen to head down the coaching path, so this is a good opportunity.”
New Essendon VFL head coach Leigh Tudor said Heppell would be sorely missed.
"His leadership, the way he trains, and the way he played the Essendon way made him exactly the type of person you want to lead your VFL program," Tudor said.
"You can see why he won best and fairests and why he was the captain of the club.
"He's going to be a massive loss because he's been a super player for the club."
With Heppell's retirement, the VFL Bombers will appoint a new captain for a new-look 2021 season.
This year's VFL competition has expanded to include clubs from Queensland and New South Wales, featuring 22 teams playing a 16-game season over 19 rounds.
While the fixture is yet to be released, round one will begin on April 17, with a top-eight finals series beginning on August 28 and the grand final earmarked for the weekend of September 18-19.
The VFL Bombers will enter the season on the back of a preliminary final exit in 2019.