Sam Butler was one of the West Coast Eagles’ rising stars but recurring injuries restricted his true potential.
JH: You didn’t start out as a footballer, but instead played soccer. What was that like?
SB: I grew up playing soccer as with all young kids, it wasn’t my decision – I just did whatever the parents told me to do.
I started our pretty young, at about four or five-years-old.
If it were still up to them, I would’ve never played football at all, dad wasn’t keen on me starting out with footy when I did, thought it was a bit too dangerous and that I was going to get hurt.
Turns out he was right.
I loved playing soccer, I played soccer and footy in the last couple of years (before the draft), and footy kind of took over.
JH: Why did you make the change – did you believe you had a better chance of playing at a higher level?
SB: I didn’t know at the time whether it was, but the avenue to it was quicker.
Soccer, I wasn’t Harry Kewell and moving to England when I was 14, it would’ve taken some time to build up through, and there’s not the draft system.
I got drafted at 17 to go into footy, so that last 18 months before that time, if I’m gonna have a crack, I’m going to do it now and see if I can get drafted.
I already made the decision if I didn’t get drafted that year, I would’ve quit footy and gone back to soccer.
I was very happy I did get drafted.
JH: You played your junior footy at South Gawler. How did you find your time there?
SB: I loved it.
It all kind of happened because my best mate (who was living down the road), his dad was coaching the under 15s.
I was training a fair bit for soccer; I had a bit of representative stuff and had training every night.
He was very cruisy with it, he said there’s no pressure and you don’t have to train too much, soccer was on Sundays, he said to come down and play on Saturdays.
It all started innocuously, I just wanted to play with friends basically and have some fun.
For that first year, I enjoyed it more than I thought, and I ended up going onto bigger and better things pretty quickly which was unexpected.
JH: You were picked up by Central District early, so when was it exactly that you first walked through its doors?
SB: It was in that first year, I was playing under 15 at South Gawler and it was about halfway through the year I got the call and they asked me to come down and train with the under 17s.
Dad put a stop to that because they thought they were a bit too big for me, so he decided that wasn’t going to happen.
The year after I played reserves and went to did a full pre-season.
After that happened, I think I played some state footy as well.
JH: What was the experience with the AFL-AIS Academy like?
SB: It was awesome, we went over to Ireland at one stage, I’d never been overseas at that stage.
I was still pretty laxed with my football when I was in the academy, it wasn’t my priority, but it did show me if I was going to make it, the elite players in Australia I was running around with.
JH: You won a reserves flag with the Bulldogs as well. What do you remember about that day?
SB: I don’t remember much. I got my nose broken, I can’t remember if it was either the end of the first quarter or early in the second, but basically someone cleaned me up.
We played Port Adelaide, so it was no surprise.
I was out for the rest of the day, I was quite happy to go back on, but we won convincingly.
The only thing I remember was the celebrations after down at Elizabeth.
JH: A bit further down the track was draft day. How did you feel going into it and how many clubs did you speak to in the lead up?
SB: It was a funny one, because I’m working in Melbourne now with some of the recruiters, and I’ve had a couple of chats to them about that time.
I only spoke to the two Adelaide clubs, and I feel like they had to do their rounds.
We had a few guys at Centrals that year they were talking to, and the only other club I spoke to was West Coast, and they told me that I’m in the mix for their last pick, which was around 60 or 70, and they had 20 or 30 blokes in that mix.
I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to West Coast after that, and I didn’t really predict going at all, I didn’t have any high hopes until two weeks before the draft when the word started coming around that Port were going to look at me.
I had a relatively good finals series with Centrals and finished off the season pretty well, unbeknownst to me, it was all rumbling around pretty late.
When the draft was on, I was at schoolies in Victor Harbor, I didn’t see it, I didn’t know until I got the call from John Worsfold.
JH: What was it like moving interstate?
SB: It all happened quickly, myself and Beau Waters were both at schoolies so we had to drive back into town and meet the guys from the club…we were quite hungover, I don’t know if I should say that as we were both 17.
We met with West Coast, and I think it was the Tuesday or Wednesday after that we were in Perth ready to train.
It all happened quick, and a lot of people say that 17 is young to move away from your family and all that stuff, but to be honest, I don’t think you could do it in a better way.
The clubs are set up for it, I had an amazing host family in Perth, you go straight into having 44 other mates that want to look after you.
The transition was exciting, I obviously missed family and friends, but other than that, it was great.
JH: So you had no feeling of ever returning to SA?
SB: To be honest, no.
If I had the choice at the start, I would’ve loved to have stayed in South Australia and played for either Port or the Crows.
I had a fair few injuries early in my career, I was always taken aback by the support the club showed me through some of those times, and some of that stuff I knew I’d never leave.
JH: You made your debut against Richmond. What do you remember about the build up during that week and the game itself?
SB: I don’t remember much of the build up to be honest, I don’t know if I was close the week before or not.
The one thing I do remember is, I had some good advice, and you always remember bits of advice before your first game.
I remember someone telling me that it’s your first game, it’s a freebie, everyone’s expecting you to get donuts, so don’t feel pressure of having to get a certain amount or play well, you should be able to go fun.
So, that settled my nerves.
I was driving to the game; you know when you’re on the freeway and they have those little reflector bits on the lanes? I remember I changed two lanes and I missed all of those reflectors, so I felt like I was on that day.
JH: In 2005 you played in the losing grand final. What was that day like?
SB: It was obviously horrible.
I think I may have got injured or been dropped in about round 15 or 16 that year, so I didn’t play another game.
My WAFL team wasn’t playing finals, so I didn’t play any footy at all for about a month or so before the grand final.
I remember that I didn’t get a lot of game time, didn’t get a lot of touches, and being a young person and losing by such a small margin, it kind of made me feel like I had some responsibility on the end result.
It was quite hard afterwards, it kind of changed the whole trajectory of my career, as I never wanted to let my team down again from that point.
Probably for the first two or three years of my career, I was thinking I was going to be the best midfielder in the comp, and I wanted to do everything to be the best I could be, and then it changed to never wanting to let my team down and played my role for the club.
That day really got to me, and probably spelt my doom to go into the backline.
JH: 2006 was a huge year for you personally, did a lot of 2005 fuel you through that year and through the finals?
SB: Oh yeah, 100 percent.
Every training session and game that year I was thinking about the year before.
I was very lucky to come into a club that was on the verge of doing some really great things, and especially in 2006, we had a strong belief that we were going to win it and we weren’t going to accept anything less.
It wasn’t just me; it was the whole club that felt that way.
It was certainly a driving factor for me that year.
JH: The 2006 was another close game, what do you remember about it?
SB: Not a lot, I remember a few moments in the game, the finish, the celebrations.
To be honest, I haven’t watched that game, or any of the grand finals back.
I do have the desire to watch the 2015 grand final back I must admit, that one sticks with me as well.
JH: In 2007 you had the whole year off injured, how hard was that coming off such success?
SB: It’s probably harder retrospectively to be honest, I think I missed that year and maybe played three or four games the year after through the same injury – so I basically missed two years.
Through that time, it’s hard because you want to be out there, but you’re in the moment.
I was trying, it wasn’t a knee injury where you know you’re out for the whole year, I was always two or three weeks away from coming back that whole two years.
Looking back on it, it had a fair impact on my trajectory as a player, I was up and about after 2006 and established in a strong midfield.
I was hoping that it was still going to keep going up, but I had to take those years off, I had to get the confidence back in my body, I had to realise that maybe my body doesn’t cope with the stresses of AFL and I had to change my training techniques.
Certain things flowed on from that if I went back, I’d want to change, but at the time I felt was necessary.
It took me a few years after that to start figuring that out to be honest.
JH: You got to game 100 in 2014, how good was it to get that personal milestone?
SB: That was awesome.
I don’t try to profess or be arrogant, but I was always confident in my own ability and felt like I was always good enough if healthy, but it was just a slog, it took a long time.
I probably expected 100 games when I was starting, and after a while I thought it may never happen, but the real satisfying one was 150 games.
To get life membership of the footy club and all that jazz was great.
JH: You’ve said before the 2015 grand final is one that sits with you. What is it that burns about that match?
SB: In 2015 we didn’t put in our best effort; we were completely outplayed by a great team.
From myself as a senior player at the time, I felt a lot of responsibility from the team performance, what could I have done to help or make them better.
Something about the game with how it was played, how they picked us apart, I still have nightmares about it on a regular basis.
I feel to exorcise some demons, I need to watch that one back and just come to grips how much better they were than us, because in my mind, we should’ve won that game as we were the better team, but on that day, they played so much better than us.
JH: Was retiring an easy decision?
SB: Absolutely, in the last couple of years in my career, along with a lot of senior players, it was based on how the team was going, and if it was performing well, I would’ve stayed around, but after a certain point if it starts falling a bit, then it’s time to get some youth in.
That year in 2017 we were underperforming, my body was a bit banged up, so it was an easy decision to retire.