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How Kid Callan Became Captain Ward

AFL's Biggest Names on Ward Some of AFL's biggest names congratulate Callan Ward ahead of his 200th game.
I have people from other footy clubs tell me they feel like it must be great to play with Wardy, and they’re right. Even they can see something special in him.
Phil Davis on Callan Ward

Dylan Addison was a Western Bulldog when Callan Ward turned up a few days after the 2007 draft, only to disappear at the end of January as the season started to creep closer. Ward still had Year 12 to get through, and spent much of his first season at school. “I can remember him turning up late in the day when everyone else was leaving to go home,” said Addison, who played with Ward in the red, white and blue and also for the GIANTS a few years after that. “That’s how the story went. The big rumour was that he would turn up to training in his school clothes and turn up to school in his Bulldogs gear, and parade that around a bit.” 

It’s difficult to find anyone with bad things to say about Ward, who this week will play his AFL 200th game, his 140th as the GIANTS’ 28-year-old co-captain. Even in jest. And even though a handful of GIANTS have known him in both sets of colours.

“I couldn’t. I just couldn’t,” said Sam Reid, who was drafted to the Bulldogs with Ward, lived with him for a bit and then followed him up to Sydney at the end of 2011. “They would have had no interest in me if it wasn’t for him. It was a bit of a sweetener for them to sign him, bringing me up here too.”

Reid describes Ward as kind-hearted and approachable. Everyone’s friend. It was something Leon Cameron picked up early in his career, too. Cameron didn’t necessarily see a captain in Ward when he started working with him as midfield coach at the ‘Dogs. But spent lots of time with him, in the afternoons after school when all the other players had gone home and saw how easily he was able to win people over. There was a simplicity about him, in the way he played and the way he was.

Don't miss the GIANTS taking on the West Coast Eagles in Callan Ward's 200th game on Saturday, May 12. CLICK HERE to get your tickets!

“He’s one of the most popular guys at our footy club. And I think that stems from that time at the Bulldogs as a young pup with the way he put his head over the ball no matter what. He attacked everything that came to him and that’s hard not to notice when you’re seeing someone train and play for the first time,” Cameron said.

“He got kudos from his mates because of that, but also because off the field, he ’s the first one to bring the group together in terms of entertainment and spirit. He isn’t the clown or anything like that, he just has a way of knowing when and how to get the boys together, how to know when the boys need to be together when the partners all need to be together. He just knows what the group is looking for.

“That was always there, I think, but in those early days, not many people would have seen him as a captain. Even Cal would say he was thrown into it and it was sink or swim, but he’s found a way to swim. He liked to keep quiet, go about his business and not really talk up, but those are the things that helped make him a good captain. He rallies people around him, and he turns up every game he plays. Players want to play with him. And in other ways, he’s changed a little bit.”

Dylan Addison has seen it happen, as a teammate at both clubs and now as the GIANTS’ Welfare Manager: how Ward has learnt to do the sometimes uncomfortable things, while not deviating from the person he is at heart. And to do the job, as captain, that he had to be convinced to do after he signed with the club.

“He was a shy sort of kid coming in, and he had his challenges like any other player to have his voice heard and get involved, but I came up here a bit after he did and he was already looking a lot more comfortable talking to the group, and talking in public, and he was the one who had taken it on to improve in all those areas he was uncomfortable with and take time to get better at them,” said Addison.

“To have Phil Davis do the job with him has been good because they’ve been able to lean on each other to do different things, but he’s developed things while still being the same sort of no-fuss guy who nothing really fazes or gets to, in life and in general. If things don’t go his way he can brush it off and continue on and the good thing about him is that he never really puts up any barriers with other people. 

“He’s obviously a super leader and held in high esteem at the club but he has no barriers with people whether it’s players or staff or new people just coming in to visit the club. He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. Cal is a real connector.”

Davis has been with him all the way through, at least since both signed on as uncontracted players at the end of 2011 and were asked by coach Kevin Sheedy to captain the club together. Or, rather, told to. Davis didn’t know him – he used to get Ward mixed up with another Bulldog, Tim Callan – or even too much about him. He knew Ward was reluctant to take on the captaincy, that he needed to be talked into it. But it soon became clear how they could help and complement each other.

There was more of the first, at first. “If I look at when Wardy and I came in, he didn’t really care all that much for structure and little things and all the minute details in football and life. I came from a very black and white world. There was no grey, and one thing I’ve taken from working with Wardy and also Leon, is that there’s more grey and more adaptability in the way I view things,” said Davis.

“He’s given that to me, whereas I presume something I’ve given him is seeing the value of the little things, things that can come to affect the bigger picture. 

“I love working with him. Sometimes he frustrates me. I’ll send him a message about things that are really annoying me and he’ll come back with, ‘Why does that annoy you Phil?’ He wouldn’t have even noticed what I noticed. It makes me feel batshit crazy, but he calms me down and it’s very much a great relationship. He’s a great bloke and a good friend of mine. To give him some credit, he’s worked at the things he’s been uncomfortable with, and he’s given us everything he’s had on field since he’s been here. He’d be in our top five players nearly every single game he’s played.” 

Reid is glad he took the job on. Even if he did have no real choice, and even if he needed a few big nudges to do it. “You can’t have Phil without him, and you can’t have him without Phil. They’re two peas in a pod,” said Reid, who did what he could to help Ward work out through his hesitancy about taking it on.

“It was more about him listening to his family and talking to them, but the big thing was to keep encouraging him. He was the big name coming up here and he was the most experienced player other than the older guys like Luke Power and Chad Cornes, so he was the one they needed to help out all the 17-year-old kids.

“Everyone spoke to him about the opportunity but I don’t think when he took on he realised how good he would be now, with talking to the group and doing media and all the public speaking. He had to learn on the run and survive it at first, but he’s come so far. He’s kind and he cares and he’s been a really good leader.” 

Cameron thinks there is more to come, on that front. “Definitely. I had three years at the Hawks before I came here and hadn’t seen him. There was some serious growth in that time, there’s been great growth since then and I think he’s still going,” said the coach.

“He’s learned and he’s learning to put his stamp on things. He’s always been a person who’s comfortable with who he is, but he’s getting better and better at challenging his teammates, having the hard conversations a captain has to have. And he’s a pleasure to coach and easy to coach because he takes feedback better than anyone at all. When you challenge him there’s no backing down. He’ll look at things and say, ‘no that wasn’t good enough, what can we do to get it right again?’”

Davis admires him: his resilience, his determination, the way he makes others want to play alongside him. He also feels like a more complete leader because of the things Ward has seen, encouraged and brought out in him in the last seven years.

But he hopes their differences don’t ever disappear completely. “The thing I like is that we always seem to find a way to meet together. We’re both stubborn but I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument. When we disagree we can come at things in our own way and everything is worked out and put back in the right spot. We both could be called stubborn but for some reason it works well,” he said. 

“I admire him. He’s super resilient and he leads the club so well. He’s had his own fair set of challenges, and he has this aura about him that you can’t manufacture. I have people from other footy clubs tell me they feel like it must be great to play with Wardy, and they’re right. Even they can see something special in him.”