The number nine will change hands in 2023, moving from retired AFL legend Robbie Gray to young livewire Zak Butters. Image: Brooke Bowering.

WHEN Port Adelaide football boss Chris Davies approached retired club great Robbie Gray to see whether there was anybody he wanted to take on the number nine guernsey he made his own across his glittering career, one name came to mind immediately.

Gray wore number nine in 201 of his 271 AFL games, winning three best and fairest awards, four All-Australian blazers and four of his record five Showdown medals in it.

The number has previously been donned by stars including Samson ‘Shine’ Hosking, Ken Obst, Anthony Williams, Mark Williams, Brayden Lyle, Josh Carr and Jacob Surjan, but Gray didn’t need to think twice when he told Davies the next owner should be Zak Butters.

“When Chris Davies approached me and asked whether there was anyone I’d want to wear the number nine, Zak came to mind straight away,” Gray said.

“He’s a young guy I think plays the game the right way. I’ve always liked watching him attack the ball and use his smarts to help the team, and he is a great person as well.”

A childhood hero of his, Robbie Gray's offer of the number nine to Zak Butters came as a pleasant shock to the young gun. Image: AFL Photos.

Gray had previously worn the number 17, but shifted at the end of 2012 after suffering a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and seeking a change of luck.

Butters does not necessarily need luck, but has embraced the change and is particularly excited at being asked by his mentor and childhood hero to follow in his footsteps.

“I was pretty shell shocked when he offered it to me,” Butters said of being asked to wear the number nine.

“Growing up (Gray) was someone I looked up to in the AFL and then for four years it was an honour to play with him and see what he does at training every day and on game day so it was very special and something that I'll definitely never forget.

“You dream growing up of wearing one of your favourite players’ numbers at some point in your career so it’s pretty exciting.”

Gray was a big advocate for the club drafting Butters and mentored his fellow Victorian when he first landed at Alberton at the end of 2018.

Butters admitted speaking to family and friends as well as coach Ken Hinkley about swapping his number 18 for the number nine, and said in the end, it was a “no brainer”.

“(Robbie) just gave me a call in the off season and offered it to me and it was a bit of a no brainer at the time, but I took a few days to have a think about it and let my family and friends know,” Butters explained.

“I’ve obviously had a close relationship with Rob in my four years at the club and working with him pretty closely.

“He helped me out with a lot of things in my game and I feel he's been a huge for me since arriving at the club and also a really good friend.

“So, it's pretty exciting to sort of carry on his legacy a bit and keep the number nine out there on the field.”