After returning from injuries that saw him give up his dog and his golf game, Melbourne utility Aaron vandenBerg hopes this AFL pre-season won't be another false dawn.
Unable even to walk his golden retriever Toby amid ongoing foot and ankle injuries which have limited him to seven games in three years, vandenBerg chose to send the dog to his mum in Wollongong so he could focus on his arduous rehabilitation.
"It's tremendously difficult. I haven't played golf in over a year and a half," he added.
"There's been a lot of sacrifices to try to make sure everything in terms of football goes right and it certainly has taken a toll on my lifestyle outside of the football club.
"But my main goal is to get back and play and that's the only thing I care about at the minute."
The 27-year-old returned in Saturday's pre-season win over Adelaide.
"I think of the last five seasons I've played nearly every (pre-season) game but I haven't played round one in three," he said.
vandenBerg last appeared at AFL level in 2018, stringing together seven consecutive games in Melbourne's run to a preliminary final.
The Demons took a cautious approach to getting him up for this season - limiting him to half the on-track training load of his teammates.
Admitting he was "half a step" off the pace early against Adelaide, vandenBerg finished with 19 disposals and five tackles and quickly pinpointed the moment he knew he was back.
"When I finally got a tackle on the board - a chase-down tackle, that's when you know you're back on the pace," he said.
Australian Associated Press