Sam Gray knows what it takes to improve.
He’s gone through his life steadily ticking the necessary boxes and making his way through the ranks, often with little fanfare.
Growing up in the country South Australian town of Cleve on the Eyre Peninsula — five and a half hours from Adelaide — Gray said there wasn’t much for the less than 1,000 residents of the town to do other than play sport.
Footy was the one Gray was best at. He always harboured the dream to play at the top and he learned more about what it took the further he progressed through the ranks.
Gray still remembers his first day at Port Adelaide. A dreaded fitness test was first up but the mature-aged rookie knew he had to be in decent shape in the lead up.
“I remember walking into a 3km time trial on my first day,” Gray told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“My running wasn’t the strongest part of my game at the time — I’ve had to work pretty hard on it over the years — but luckily I had been getting up early before work every day and going for a run when I found out I was getting drafted.
“I knew I had to put in some work before training started and I actually surprised myself and was middle of the pack.”
Before the Power signaled their intentions to draft Gray at the end of 2013, he was making waves in the SANFL with the Port Adelaide Magpies.
He finished runner-up in the Magarey Medal in 2013 after entering the count as the favourite and was making sacrifices with the desire to further his football career.
He credits a specific mentor for opening his eyes to the professionalism required to take the next step.
“Tony Bamford was the coach at the Magpies at the time and he was the one who said to me I had to knuckle down a bit and not go out as much and do what normal kids do,” Gray said.
“He said I needed to make sacrifices if I was to go where I wanted to go. He was a massive influence.”
There were already signs Gray was on the right track.
Gray’s housemate and current West Coast Eagle Scott Lycett had been drafted onto an AFL list only a couple of years beforehand, which confirmed to Gray that opportunities were available.
The 25-year-old’s journey didn’t get any easier since joining Ken Hinkley’s mob. He’s been made to earn his place in the last four years, building momentum with each passing season.
Still somewhat on the fringes as a midfielder in 2016, the club approached Gray with the idea of playing a new role this year.
“This pre-season, Ken said they were going to draft a few mids and get some games into them but there was a spot up forward for me if I wanted it,” Gray added.
“I really wanted to make that spot mine and took the challenge head on and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
It was the first time since his first year at the Power that Gray played as a small forward and it’s worked wonders for both parties.
Playing second-fiddle to his namesake, Robbie Gray — who some people still believe are brothers — he hit the scoreboard 16 times in the home and away season, including a massive bag of six in Round 23.
And as each game passes, Gray is becoming more accustomed to the role.
“Each week I play, I get more confidence which fuels the belief I can play at this level. I’m getting more confident each week which is important coming into finals time.”