Charlie Ballard wants to be a leader.
As one of the AFL’s best young key defenders, the Suns would be well-served by his guidance.
The 21-year-old’s commitment cannot be questioned. His contract tells you as much, which doesn’t expire until the end of 2025.
So too did the thick Patagonia fleece he was sporting during an interview with aflplayers.com.au when the Suns were temporarily based in Melbourne a month ago.
The South Australian seemed so accustomed to life on the Gold Coast that not even the balmy temperature of the Albert Park hotel lobby could keep him warm.
But the salient indicator of Ballard’s allegiance to the Suns ultimately came in the form of his words.
He said Gold Coast’s exciting young brigade are bonded by a shared glimpse of the future.
“We’ve come to realise how important we are to the club and its future years,” Ballard told aflplayers.com.au.
“We’re all really close and we’re all on the same page with how we’re trying to develop the club.”
The main focus is leadership, which is an area Ballard is beginning to take great strides in. Often a last-line defender, he ranks 15th in the competition for total intercepts, and recently played one of the best games of his career against a Richmond forward line boasting Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt.
“I’m trying to develop my leadership as a lot of the other younger boys are,” he said.
“I think I’m improving … how you’re going probably dictates how much of a leader you can be as well.”
Ballard’s governing game is inspired by Sam Collins, his key defensive partner.
Collins, 27, is a member of the Suns’ four-man leadership group.
“The main thing I’m trying to get off him is his leadership,” Ballard said. “Everyone looks up to him as a leader, especially in the backline. I try to take a bit of the load off him.
“He’s in really good form, so he’s able to give that feedback of how to get better. A lot of that was him giving me feedback early days, so I like to think I’ll be able to pass that on now.
“Giving feedback is probably the hardest part of it, but I think I’m getting used to it.”
When Collins sustained an ankle injury ahead of round 13, Ballard had to step up and become the main man down back.
He embraced the challenge, combining 19 marks with 40 disposals (at 83 per cent efficiency) over the three matches Collins was missing.
“I tried to take it on a fair bit,” Ballard recounted.
“There was a lot of help from all the other backs as well. Sean Lemmens is becoming a really good leader.
“Caleb Graham coming in, he was really good as well, so I think he’s improving his leadership. You have to as a last-line defender — it’s pretty important to the team.”
Graham’s lockdown position allowed Ballard to continue rolling off opposition forwards to act as a defensive marking threat, a key component of his game.
“I’ve always been able to read the game pretty well, but you need a bit of confidence,” he explained.
“It can be a risk at times to come off your man, so I think backing yourself in is another thing.
“My teammates and coaches are really supportive of how I go about it.”
He wasn’t always an aerial threat, though.
In fact, Ballard did not reach key-position height until the backend of his high school years, and before his growth spurt, he was a wingman.
“I was always pegged as a rangy midfield-wing sort of position, and then I grew and got good at marking because of that height,” he said.
“I got drafted as a winger and ended up moving down back, where I’ve been pretty comfortable over the last few years.”
“We’ve come to realise how important we are to the club and its future years.” – Charlie ballard on the young core of suns players
Ballard’s progressing comfort on the field is paralleled by a growing sense of belonging off it, where he is flourishing in the surrounds of the Gold Coast’s sunshine and surf.
“When I first got there, I didn’t know anyone,” he said. “It was pretty much just like meeting a bunch of random blokes.
“I lived with Jack Leslie who has been delisted now, but he was really good for me.
“I made friends pretty quickly with the blokes in my draft year. There’s ‘Powelly’ (Wil Powell) from WA, so he was going through the same stuff I was going through. We get on pretty well.
“Moving out of home is the best thing I’ve done, because it’s made me grow up really quickly. I don’t think I’d be the same if I was a 21-year-old living in Adelaide, so I’m pretty happy with the move.”
Mixing football with a commerce degree alongside Ben King, Ballard also hopes to make new connections through attending university classes in the back-half of the year.
“Kingy and I are doing the same subjects at the moment, so that’s been really beneficial.
“We’ve been doing it online, but I think we’re going to go on to the university’s campus next semester. We’ll try a bit of a change up with some different social groups.”
There is one thing on the Gold Coast, though, that Ballard isn’t on top of: the waves.
“I tried to [surf] early days, but I struggled. I’m too tall for that,” he laughed.
Ballard isn’t the only rebounding defender in his family, either, with younger sister Alex impressing over 32 senior games for Sturt in the SANFL Women’s.
“I’d like to say she got her skills off me, but she’s probably got a better kick than me,” Ballard said. “She’s doing really well at the moment.”
“Her and my brother as well, we all played footy, inside the house and outside the house. Mum used to get pretty mad if it was inside, though.
“There were definitely a couple of [broken] lamps, and I remember we broke the clock, but it’s all for the better now.”