ZAK BUTTERS is a fast-footed player who dances around opponents, dodges tackles and spins through traffic. The Port Adelaide whiz kid aims to bring electricity to the Power and his agile quickstep is one of his weapons.
But after a freakish injury earlier this year, the young star couldn't feel his left foot and toes. He struggled to walk up stairs, he would fall over himself, catch his shoes dragging on the ground and even had to stop wearing thongs and Birkenstock sandals, so difficult it was to lift it normally. He was told his season was over but there were bigger concerns, too.
"It was a bit scary there. I couldn't feel my foot, I couldn't really walk properly," Butters told AFL.com.au ahead of Port's preliminary final clash this Saturday with the Western Bulldogs.
It started in round four against Richmond, when Butters, who had been in red-hot form following his breakout 2020 campaign, landed awkwardly on his ankle and ruptured his syndesmosis ligament.
"I thought I'd just rolled it and I normally recover pretty well from injuries and can play through a bit of pain so in my head I was thinking 'I should be good for next week'. But it was a syndesmosis injury and I had surgery a day or two after that," he said. "I was expected to be back within four weeks and hopefully play in a Showdown (in round eight). It all went pear-shaped from there."
Butters only returned to light running days before the clash with crosstown rivals Adelaide, having realised after surgery that something wasn't right. The club's medicos continued to monitor the problem and found that in the same incident he had torn his ankle ligament, Butters had also suffered nerve damage in his knee.
"After surgery I was in the moonboot for the first week and giving the ankle complete rest and no pressure. Once I got out of the moonboot I knew there was something wrong because I was expected to start running and jogging but I had this thing called 'drop foot'," he said.
"It's a pretty freakish thing and I couldn't feel my toes or move my toes at all. I couldn't lift my foot up, so it was basically 'dead foot'.
"In the same tackle when my leg twisted instead of my bones breaking my nerves got traumatised, wrenched and damaged and post-op I came out with a dead foot. There's no real timeframe on that so it was pretty frustrating for me. I thought it was going to be a four-week thing and I was being told that I was going to miss most of the year.
"I got told there was no immediate surgery that fixes those issues or can help with those things so it was just going to be about waiting. I was pretty concerned there for a little bit."
Butters underwent follow-up surgery to release the pressure on the nerve to ensure he would make a full recovery, but there was no expectation it would be this year. For a football devotee – Butters has an appetite for the game, watching and consuming as much as he can – it was hard news to take and some of his usual high drive was lost.
"Going into the operation I was told I would be out for four months and my season was pretty much done. I was a pretty flat man there for a couple of weeks. After that I thought about all the stories you hear about people being told they'll be out for a certain amount of time and they can turn it around quickly," he said.
"Once I got my head around that I focused on my rehab and was pretty optimistic about what I could do. I ended up coming back and playing SANFL in six weeks and was letting my foot come back and heal as I play. It's probably been the most challenging thing of my career to date.
"I had to teach my foot how to pick itself up again and walk properly again. It's probably something you take for granted so I'm happy to be walking normally again and run and play footy again. I'm so happy to be back."
So, too, is everyone at Port Adelaide, with the Power losing only one of the seven games he has played since returning in round 17. To call the 20-year-old Port's spark would be selling him short: his poise, vision and smarts make him perhaps the Power's barometer and it was no coincidence that during his three months out of the team they club's form lapsed, leading to their flag credentials being questioned.
Butters' ball use is exceptional – he has the best inside-50 retention rate at Port – and he creatively backs himself to make an impact. But there's more than that to his influence, with a courage that can be underrated externally, an aggression that belies his smaller size and the agility to change angles and open space. He's even won comparisons to retired champion Gary Ablett Jnr for his footy smarts.
The preliminary final will be just Butters' 48th game after arriving as one of Port's trio of draft stars in 2018 alongside Connor Rozee and Xavier Duursma but he – and they – will be crucial in the club's hopes of progressing to its first Grand Final since 2007. He also has Ken Hinkley firmly in his corner, with Butters renowned as a favourite of the coach within Alberton Oval.
"That's become a bit of a popular thing around the club," Butters laughed.
"We have a good relationship as player and coach and outside of that as well being able to talk to him about many things. I like home so he's helped me transition away from home and help me adapt over here and become my own person as well. He's been huge in that area for me and he's really made me feel like I belong at the footy club as well as all the leaders here. I love playing under him.
"Kenny just wants me to always stay on my feet, keep involved and keep buzzing around."
Such has been the buzz, confidence and class that Butters has brought to Port, it is easy to forget he is still only in his third AFL season. But as the club shoots for a flag, he has experience up his sleeve, including playing a senior premiership for local club Darley in western Victoria in 2017 as a 17-year-old a year before he was drafted.
"It's good having that experience early on in your career," he said.
"I'm probably not in a dissimilar situation now, I'm still one of the younger blokes in the team and my role is just to do my bit for the team. That's where we've come a long way as a team this year, we're not relying on individuals so much. There's no hero mentality and we don't rely on Charlie (Dixon) to kick five or six or 'Boaky' (Travis Boak) to have 40 or whatever it is. Everyone's chipped in and everyone knows what we have to do to be a successful team."