For 14 years, Port Adelaide fans have been fortunate enough to watch the remarkable talents of Robbie Gray.
This week, he’ll celebrate his 250th game for the club he joined at the end of 2006 as Pick 55 in that year’s draft.
His resume speaks for itself: 348 goals including a career best 47 in 2017. AFLCA Champion player of the year, four All-Australians, three time John Cahill medallist and three games for Australia.
We take a look back through his career, the highs and the challenges so far.
The bargain pick
Gray was Port Adelaide’s fourth selection in the 2006 draft, coming after Travis Boak, Paul Stewart and Nathan Krakouer.
Justin Westhoff, Ryan Williams and David Rodan would join after in the same draft, and then-captain Warren Tredrea reflected on what he was like early days.
“I still remember when he introduced himself to me and I said ‘welcome aboard’. He goes, ‘you rang me’, I said absolutely, because I was captain, I rang all the players,” Tredrea told The Inner Sanctum.
“But at that stage, I didn’t want to tell him, I was still trying to work out who was who, because we him, Travis Boak, David Rodan, Nathan Krakouer, Ryan Williams, Justin Westhoff and Paul Stewart.
“D-Rod had trained with us the week before, so I knew him from playing against him too.
“I rang him and then I just remember seeing this kid, he was sort of just a genuine natural footballer and his biggest challenge early was staying on the park.
“He was similar to Hamish Hartlett, they ramped up their training, they’d get injured, but when he was out there, the boys nicknamed him ‘Little Gaz’, like Gary Ablett, because he could do the impossible.
“He had the chip and not many AFL players have got the chip who can just read the play and they can’t teach you how to do it, because it just comes naturally to them.
“You know, he used to find holes and duck under blokes and he was just evasive, and he was a little dynamo and he hardly spoke in the first years, he was really quiet. He’s stayed humbled ever since.”
Developing his game
Gray made his debut against Hawthorn in 2007 and two weeks later, ended up with a bag of four goals and Port fans saw a glimpse of what was to come.
Gray wouldn’t get a full season in until 2011 and his coach at the time Matthew Primus told The Inner Sanctum he was someone who just wanted to learn.
“He was terrific, he was a guy, from the day he walked in the door, who was keen to learn,” Primus said.
“He probably wanted to like all those really good young players, want to get to the middle of the ground and play on-ball the whole time, and all those sorts of things.
“Body-wise he had a few issues early on, just the ability to be able to play and train and play and train and just to be able to hold him back.
“But, you could also say the capabilities and what he was able to do around the ball, and contested ball and all those sorts of things.
“He always wanted to learn, always asked for advice, and a really good teammate from early days too, he loved to bring other the guys into the game all those sorts of things.
“I really remember the main three guys we got in Westhoff and Boak, they’re all sort of similar personalities as in they’re all about the team and wanting to get better really quickly and fit in well. Still watching now and the things he does individually, but what he does for the team, those kinds of things are what I remember of him when he first walked in the door.”
Injury heartache and the turning point
With Port Adelaide struggling, Robbie Gray was one of the highlights in 2011 with 32 goals in 22 games.
However, in the dying seconds of a clash against Collingwood in 2012, he’d fall badly on his knee and require a full knee reconstruction.
Tredrea reflected on the moment when Gray went down and how it changed his footy.
“I was commentating the game against Collingwood when Matty Primus was coach and at that stage, I said something along the lines that there could be a silver lining around this horrendous injury, and I don’t want it to go away from how tough it is, but this might actually be a life lesson that changes Robbie Gray’s footy trajectory,” he said.
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“He can keep going along like he is be super talented but inconsistent with his body or he can become an absolute pro.
“He has since that moment and I remember asking him when he won the Best & Fairest and we had a camera there, and I asked him ‘what’s the lessons you learned the last eight months?’ and he said ‘it can end very quickly and I made a decision once I did my knee that I was going to become a pro and do absolutely everything in my recovery so it can stay longer’.”
Within 12 months of his recovery, Gray was regarded by the AFLCA as its MVP of the year as Port Adelaide made a preliminary final for the first time since his debut season.
The star on and off the field
There’s little doubt Robbie Gray is in the conversation of Port Adelaide’s greatest players.
His journey to get there has been even more remarkable.
In addition to his knee reconstruction, he had a cancer scare and his former coach Primus said he’s proud of his former player.
“I’m super proud,” he said.
“For a guy to have to leave his mum, that was a big thing for him to be able to do and family in Melbourne and come over there and find his way into the team and go through some highs and lows early in his career.
“A couple of years there that were pretty barren, and then go through the knee injury that he had and the cancer issue that he’s had and to see where he’s got to and how how high esteem he’s held in throughout the league, not just at Port Adelaide and Adelaide, but just throughout the whole region.
“He’s very respected and admired about how he goes about his footy.
“To see how professional he got with looking after his body and then having to deal with a knee injury when he was just coming into playing some outstanding footy.
“To see how he attacked his rehab, how he was around the group and all those sorts of things.
“When those those things become difficult when you’re going to out of the game for the 12 months, you got to see his true colours of how he handled it, how he handled himself around the club.
“He’s great to watch, that’s how he is as a person, he’s a terrific man.”
His former captain Tredrea believes there’s another accolade which will come after his career is done.
“I think he’ll go down as a Australian Football Hall of Fame in time, and the only thing missing is the elusive premiership,” he said.
Watch what Gray’s teammates have said about him here.