Zak Butters celebrates a goal for Port Adelaide. Picture: AFL Photos

ZAK Butters has been a star on the rise in Port Adelaide's line-up since he arrived at the club as an early pick in 2018. 

The Power midfielder this week chatted to Cal Twomey for Cal's Q&A about his side's last-gasp win over Sydney, his midfield rise and relationship with coach Ken Hinkley, early homesickness in Adelaide, where his toughness comes from and how he overcame the nerve injury that threatened his career. 

Obvious one first up. Did you think Ollie Florent's kick was going through?

I can't think who I was standing next to but I said 'Does he kick it?' and they said 'Yeah' and that made me a bit nervous. Ollie Florent's a good kick of the footy and he was having a good night so I was thinking 'Gee, I hope not'. When he kicked it I could hear the crowd erupt and I thought initially it would be a goal but it backflipped within a second or two and all our boys were going nuts. Winning on the road against Sydney, they were in the Grand Final last year, they're a good team, they've been doing it for a number of years. It wasn't perfect, it wasn't pretty but when you're looking for a spark those wins are crucial. 

It was your best game of the season so far with 27 disposals and a goal. How have you seen the start of your year?  

I definitely feel like I had my speed and a bit of my spunk back that I've been searching for the first few rounds. After a slow three weeks it was good to get back to how I play footy and most importantly get a win for the team and help contribute. I had a bit of a slow end to the pre-season with injury and I've been building since then. Josh Carr (Port's midfield coach) thought it was the right time to put me in there and back me in so I thank him and Kenny for putting me in there and telling me it's time to get to work. It's good to have them in my corner. 

Zak Butters celebrates a goal during the R4 match between Port Adelaide and Sydney at the SCG on April 8, 2023. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

There's been a lot of focus on how exciting Port's midfield can be with yourself, Connor Rozee, Ollie Wines and the addition of Jason Horne-Francis. What are you guys doing to build that chemistry up?

Tuesdays and Thursdays are our main days so it's about working with the rucks. We have a few young ruckmen as well so getting to know each other's strengths. We all complement each other in different areas – Ollie is a bull and we want him in there crashing and bashing, hopefully me and 'Roze' can do a bit of both when we need to and 'Horney' has been a good addition – he brings a bit of everything we didn't have. He's really explosive, powerful, a gamechanger so I think if we keep building we all have different strengths and can complement each other. 

Jason came into the competition as the No.1 pick. You started as a first-rounder, grabbed by Port at No.12 in 2018. You debuted the next year in round one and helped change the complexion of the club that season with Connor and Xavier Duursma. How do you look back at the start of your career?

It was very fun coming in together and playing a lot of footy together early has definitely helped me. The club did extremely well to let us be ourselves and play footy and Kenny, 'CD' (football boss Chris Davies) and all the coaches were good in that area. Now it's changing, we've played a fair bit of footy together now so some roles are changing in the club and we're trying to help that next group of younger players. 

Zak Butters celebrates a goal in his debut game in R1 between Port Adelaide and Melbourne at the MCG on March 23, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

We first met when you came into the studio to do an interview for a show as a youngster from the Western Jets. You had been nursing a shoulder injury during your draft year. Did you realise how many clubs were keen on you?

Not initially I don't think. I didn't think too many clubs were keen. I had a fair few interviews but you don't get a gauge on it. You guys probably have more of an idea than anyone else. It probably wasn't until two or three weeks before the draft when it started heating up a bit then I started to get a better idea on things. I was a little bit worried throughout the year when I had shoulder surgery and wasn't going to play for a while but it worked out really well. 


You've never been afraid of throwing yourself into things despite your size. Where does that come from? 

I think from my local club. Growing up in Darley, I was around the senior club pretty much since I was 11 or 12 running water or whatever I could do. The culture of the footy club back home was there – we didn't have heaps, nothing pretty, but we tried and it had a great community vibe and everyone always bought in and that was our thing. Seeing them have success doing that was how I was brought up and playing in a flag with them, a lot of hard-working people who dedicated time to the footy club, was unbelievable. Darley always classed themselves as being a blue-collar club and it wasn't too dissimilar from when I came to Port, with a similar kind of vibe. We don't have it all but it's a community club and everyone comes here and gets to work to get better. 

Zak Butters after hurting his shoulder during a game between Vic Metro and SA at the U18 Championships on July 4, 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

How were you brought up to play? 

Dad didn't really care if I missed kicks or made bad decisions, he just always wanted me to have a crack. There's a few moments growing up younger in Ballarat, it's a long drive home and there's a few times where I didn't show up to play in the right way and I remember Dad getting into me on the way home. It was probably moments like that where it's come from. 

Your timing is impeccable. I was going to ask you why you never wear a mouthguard and you've just come off the track with half your front tooth missing. Will we see you with the mouthguard in now?

I might have to now I've snapped half my tooth off at training about 10 minutes ago. But last time I wore a mouthguard was grade six school footy. And I only wore it because if you didn't have one you couldn't play. I started the game with it in for about two minutes then put it in my sock. That was the last time I had a mouthguard properly. I just struggle to talk with it and it really annoys me. I've bit my tongue multiple times, it somehow finds a way to get out. Mum always brings it up and is surprised I haven't bitten it off yet. 

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What's the best piece of advice you've been given about succeeding as a smaller player? 

Just be good at what you do. Coming to the club looking at Robbie (Gray) and 'Boaky' (Travis Boak), they're not overly tall or anything either but they work hard, they have clean hands, they're both good kicks, they're tough, they win their own footy. I don't think it's about trying to be bigger than you are or a really elite overhead mark, but I think it's about being good at what you do. For me, that's bringing my speed, energy and taking the game on. 

I've been lucky to spend some time inside Port Adelaide over different seasons and always found it interesting how intense you train. You are the same player on the track as in games. How often do you get told to hold back?

I always want to train as I play so that when gameday comes it's similar and I don't have to go searching for things. But mainly I just want to get better every day. I get excited coming to the footy club and challenging myself and others challenging you as well. I want to come in and show myself that I'm getting better. I just love training, love footy and love playing the game. 


That was nearly taken away from you two years ago. You had an ankle syndesmosis injury early in 2021 but also suffered some nerve damage as well that became a real concern. 

It was the scariest injury I've ever had, purely because of the unknown about it. There wasn't a return time or anything set in stone. I did my syndesmosis and was only meant to be out for four or five weeks and I got out of the moonboot and remember walking to the club and all the boys were laughing at me because I couldn't walk properly. I was thinking 'This isn't normal, I'm guessing they've seen a fair few syndesmosis injuries before so why's this different?' I had 'drop foot' so my foot couldn't pick up off the ground so I was basically walking with a limp dragging my shoe on the ground. I got in the club and it was a pretty nervous five minutes when I spoke to the docs and they were looking at each other, and when you've been at a footy club long enough you know when they don't know what to do either. I was pretty nervous. The plan was that hopefully in a few weeks the nerve could heal itself and it should be fine but I got three weeks down the track and it hadn't progressed anymore. 

What impact did it have on your day-to-day life? 

I don't think I wore Birkenstocks or thongs for nearly a year, even after I'd come back playing. I was in this brace that kept my foot up. It was very scary, I went around and saw a fair few specialists and went to one and he was pretty certain I needed surgery ASAP or I might not get my foot back. I pretty much went in a day or two later and got the surgery done. A couple of weeks post-surgery I started jogging again with the brace on and things started getting better. I couldn't move my toes, so there was no sensation in my feet. I finally got my big toe moving again, so that was a good day after you spend two-and-a-half months looking at your toe and it won't move. I was on the couch most days with bands trying to pull it back and make it happen. Once that started, I just wanted to play footy so I could get my movements back. 

Did the thought ever float into your mind that you might never play again? Footy had been your life, did you think about what you would do? 

To be fair, I wasn't even thinking of the possibilities. I was just thinking 'This has to be it', I was going to somehow find a way. I didn't think about anything if it didn't go to plan. I was probably screwed if it didn't, but I said to myself I'm going to find a way to get it right. Luckily the surgery worked out. 

People at the club say you see the game as well as anyone. How much footy do you watch? 

Growing up I would have watched most games on TV and if I didn't watch them I'd record them and watch them when I got home. Mum didn't love that with Foxtel and taking up a fair bit of storage. I spent most Saturdays at the local footy, Mum would drop me there at 9.30am and pick me up at 7.30 at night. Training with the seniors since I was 13 as well meant I probably went to more training than I do now. Some weeks I'd train five nights a week. I definitely loved watching good players do good things and still do now. 

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Who in particular?  

I love Caleb Serong at Freo. I think he's an absolute gun, he's probably a bit bigger than me, maybe has some more muscles, but his inside ability is all class so I love what he does. Errol Gulden, who we played on the weekend, I think is going to be a special player as well. Zac Fisher as well for Carlton, we've created a friendship by playing similar roles in the AFL and I played against him early too. A few of them are younger than me but I think they're going to be special players so I still love watching footy. Lachie Neale is another one – I love watching him play, his groundballs and stuff with his hands is elite. 

I'm not going to ask you about being Ken's favourite but how pivotal has he been in you flourishing as a player but also remaining at Port Adelaide?

He's definitely had a big part in me staying at the footy club. Early days I wasn't sure if I was set out for Adelaide. Getting drafted Mum was quite upset, we were pretty close, but he's definitely been a pivotal part as has the core leaders with Ollie and Darcy Byrne-Jones and Connor Rozee as well in creating a good friendship. They're pretty crucial in me staying as well. But Kenny's been unbelievable and he reads me so well as well. Even going into the Sydney game he could tell I was a bit off and he said 'We're just going to back you in tonight so just go and play'. Sometimes that's all you need. 

Zak Butters hugs coach Ken Hinkley after the qualifying final between Port Adelaide and Geelong on October 1, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

When you were first drafted were you thinking this is a short-term thing given your homesickness? 

My first year I was struggling pretty bad. I didn't really think I was struggling at the time but looking back when I'm obviously happy and content in Adelaide and the footy club and mates, it was definitely a struggle. Ken was someone who saw it from the outside and understood the kind of person I was. He kept me involved and kept me pretty happy those early days so I always had faith in him and he put faith in me. It was good to play under him and hopefully we can keep doing it a bit longer. 

Did you like him on the bench last week? 

I loved it. It was good to see his passion and energy come out as well. Sometimes you can feel a little bit disconnected when they're up in the box and you might not be quite seeing the same things but coming off and chatting to him was good. He keeps it pretty simple for me. Sometimes I can try to do a bit too much with the ball and when I was coming off he'd say to keep it simple. He always says to me you don't need to do anything extraordinary, just do the basics in extraordinary ways. I liked his energy and passion. 


Your cheek seems to get on with him well. Has that been a part of your footy forever? 

Footy clubs have always brought it out of me. Outside the footy club I'm pretty lowkey, I normally go home and watch a bit of Netflix and play a bit of golf and have a chat to Connor or Mitch (Georgiades). That's the best thing about footy clubs – they bring out sides of people and personalities and characters and you get to see every side of people. 

Well just on that. The last time I was over in January before a drill you came over and said 'Should I turn it on here?' and proceeded to get the clearance, burst from the centre, take two bounces and hit up a lead. 

Yeah, I don't normally do that … but you'd come over to Adelaide so I thought I'd better do something for you.

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