AFL Round 22: Caleb Graham

Submitted by Peter Blucher. 

If it’s possible at 195cm and 96kg to sneak under the radar Caleb Graham has done just that. And done it very well.

So well that the now 21-year-old Cairns junior turned Gold Coast SUNS key defender has locked away his future with a contract extension all the way to the end of 2026.

It was an announcement last Friday that attracted little attention outside the club, but for Graham and his close support network it was a welcome reward for a lot of hard work. And for club insiders it was another important piece of the puzzle locked away.

It should have been bigger news because it’s a wonderful Queensland football story that began when a five-year-old Graham, born in Cairns, joined the Cairns Tigers.

This was the beginning of a football journey that took him to Cairns Saints and the Gold Coast SUNS Academy before he and his family made the bold and brave decision ahead of the 2016 season to relocate to the Gold Coast.

He was only 15 but such was their shared commitment to his football dream that it came first.

Attending Palm Beach Currumbin High School, which has been such a nursery for AFL players on the Gold Coast, he played with Palm Beach and enjoyed back-to-back QAFL premierships in 2017-18.

Ten days beyond his 17th birthday, before he could even drive, he played on 289-game AFL champion and renowned hard man Barry Hall in a 53-point win in the 2017 Grand Final. If he did nothing else in football he had a story to tell his grandchildren, but it was only the beginning.

He represented the Allies at the Australian Under 18 Championships and played with the Suns in the NEAFL, splitting his time between the forward line, a combined ruck/forward role and the back line which has become ‘home’ at Metricon Stadium.

In 2018 Graham became the seventh Palm Beach player after Jesse Joyce, Brad Scheer, Max Spencer, Brayden Crossley, Jacob Dawson and Jacob Heron to be drafted by the Suns when chosen with selection #71 in the 2018 National Draft.

He admitted there were plenty of anxious moments on draft day. “It was a rollercoaster of emotions (because it was) starting to get late in the draft and a lot of teams were passing so I thought maybe the SUNS will do the same,” he said at the time.

“To have my name read out in the (NAB AFL) National Draft was unreal, a dream come true really. I’ve wanted this for the past few years so it’s been awesome. So when the 71 pick came I was over the moon.”

Graham debuted at 18 in #QClash18 at the Gabba in Round 21 2019. It was a tough initiation as the Lions posted a 91-point win, but Graham wasn’t disgraced. He had 12 possessions and stood up well under the barrage, playing 90% game time. Only Alex Sexton and 100th-gamer Jarrod Witts played more.

Graham’s draft year was one in which 135 players were drafted for the first time. Already 52 are out of the system and as the 2022 season nears an end others will be worrying about their future. Not the tough and uncompromising if unfashionable #46.

SUNS General Manager of Player Talent and Strategy Craig Cameron, confirming Graham’s contract extension, said he had been rewarded for taking his opportunities at AFL level.

“Caleb has shown a great work ethic over the last few seasons to develop into a reliable key defender. His hard work has seen him rewarded with regular game time this season and we see him as an important long-term player,” Cameron said.

With only three wins in his first 22 games and three years with the SUNS, Graham has played a career-high 14 games this year and has doubled his career win tally with six more.

With the SUNS facing bottom of the table North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium on Saturday afternoon to close out the season he will be eyeing another ‘W’ ahead of an exciting future in red and yellow.

“I’ve absolutely loved my time at the club and was really keen to stay and continue the hard work we’ve started,” Graham said.

“We’ve got a great group of boys who are committed to each other and the club, and are focussed on the same goal. We’re building something really exciting here and it was a no-brainer to want to be a part of that in the future.”

Graham, now on an 11-game streak, has gone against the norm in sticking with jumper #46 through his first four seasons in the AFL.

Just the third player to wear #46 at the Suns behind Tom Lynch and Josh Hall, he is one of only eight players to wear #46 in the AFL this year.

Geelong’s Mark Blicavs holds the AFL record for games in #46 at 223, while Brisbane’s Oscar McInerney is now two games away from becoming the third player in AFL history to play 100 games in #46 behind Blicavs and Fremantle’s Clancee Pearce.

Also pushing towards 100 games in #46 is Collingwood’s Mason Cox, while completing the #46 Club are Carlton’s Matthew Cottrell, GWS Irish recruit Callum Brown, Richmond’s Ben Miller and one-game West Coast top-up player Jake Florenca.

Peter is a consultant at Vivid Sport.

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