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An artist inside

BY JORDAN HANSEN | MAY 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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At first glance, Christian Ballard looks out of place in the cramped art classroom. He stands 6-4 with an athletic build, but right now, he’s hunched over an easel, working on a painting.

It’s for a class, and he is working on several portraits using forced perspective. The idea is to give the figures he draws more dimension and change the way someone else sees the human body.

However, forced perspective serves a double purpose in his life. While he’s creating these images, starting a comic-book company, and going to school at the University of Kansas to pursue a degree in visual-arts drawing and painting, he is trying to change how people see him.

“I’m a creative individual,” he says. “I have my own voice, my own ideas.”

Ballard doesn’t want to be defined as the former four-star recruit or the standout Iowa defensive lineman — not completely, at least. He sure as hell doesn’t want to be seen as the Minnesota Viking who walked away from a potentially great professional career.

No, he’s a long, long way from being in any of those places. The way he describes it:

“I’m an artist in a football player’s body.”

• • •

To understand who Christian Ballard is now, it helps to step back and see how he got here.

Born on Newport News military base in Virginia, his parents — Casey and Denise — were in the Air Force. They, along with Christian and younger brother Casey Jr., moved to inner-city Atlanta when he was 2 years old.

“My Mom and Dad, they spent a lot of time getting us into places that were safer than whatever we were in,” Ballard said. “We were in inner-city Georgia, roaches running around, gang members outside — it wasn’t pretty.”

The family later moved to Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta. There, he said, his mother started going to church and brought Christian and his older brother along with her.

“When she started going to that church, she started to really put things in perspective,” Ballard said. “She really tried to be humble and always told me that God is going to do great things, and He has a mission for you.”

Ballard, who is still spiritual, believes this was a major event in his life.

His mother agreed. She still has vivid memories of the church.

“They were into family, and it was really more about us trying to change and be better people,” she said. “It was just part of who they were growing up.”

While Ballard spent most of his life in Georgia, the family moved to Lawrence, Kansas, before he started junior high.

There, his mother started to notice he had some artistic talent.

“They had this thing around Halloween that the kids could go downtown and draw on different businesses’ windows,” she said. “In Lawrence, they’re pretty serious about the arts, so they kind of let the kids get exposed to different musical instruments, and he played the cello all the way through high school.”

It wasn’t exactly a surprise, considering there is a tremendous amount of artistic talent in the family.

His late uncle, Hank Ballard, wrote “The Twist” — the famous song later covered by Chubby Checker that inspired the dance craze — and his grandfather taught himself how to draw and play the piano.

“Inspiration comes from my family,” Ballard said. “For me, I wanted to be like my grandfather as an artist — someone who had the passion and the drive, and by any means necessary, he was going to leave his mark on the world.”

• • •

At Lawrence Free State High School, Ballard’s athletic talent is the stuff of legend.

During a game his senior year against Olathe North High School, a running back burst through a hole on what looked like a surefire 85-yard touchdown. The back had around 15 yards on the players chasing him, and no one thought anyone had a chance to stop him.

Ballard, who weighed nearly 100 pounds more than the back, caught him roughly 60 yards down the field.

Joseph Potts, a strength and conditioning coach who worked with Ballard, was watching the game from the sidelines and couldn’t believe what he saw.

“There was a stunned silence that fell over that crowd,” Potts said. “You could have heard a pin drop.”

If that wasn’t enough, Ballard also helped cement his athletic legacy as part of the 4x200-meter relay team that placed at the state meet.

Football coaches from around the country wanted Ballard on their teams. Letters from schools like Iowa, Oklahoma, and Florida State poured in, one right after the other.

His newfound fame made him popular among his peers. Funny, though, as those same “friends” had booed him and yelled for a backup to be put in when he dropped a pass earlier in his high-school career.

“It was weird,” Ballard said. “I wasn’t very popular in high school because I was from another state. After that, though, everyone was cool with me; everyone wanted to be my friend.”

He waffled among Georgia, Kansas, and Iowa. Eventually he picked Iowa, a decision partially due to how his mother felt about how the program conducted itself.

She said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz came off very family-oriented, which was exactly what the family looked for.

“For those four years, I watched [Ferentz] do the things that he said he would,” she said. “He stood by the boys right, wrong, or indifferent, and he’s always kept the family in the roots.”

• • •

Ballard spent four seasons on the Iowa roster and was an integral part of a defensive line that led Iowa to an Orange Bowl victory during the 2009-10 season.

That season was also by far his most productive — Ballard recorded 54 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

After a successful career at Iowa, the Minnesota Vikings took Ballard in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft.

He enjoyed a standout rookie campaign, tallying 29 tackles and a single sack. It was likely he would get significant playing time the next year.

But playing professional football was not something Ballard enjoyed.

“Everyone said it’s a business; it’s a business,” he said. “But I don’t think people really realize what that entails. For me, the contract kind of says that everything you do has to coincide with the organization.”

It didn’t sit well with him, but he put those thoughts aside because of his salary.

Around this time, he started having vivid nightmares. One recurring dream included him being dragged out of his bed, but there with others. Even when he woke up and continued on with his day, a sinking feeling that football was not for him nagged his subconscious.  That, combined with the new-found tension between him and his family and friends, was a signal from above to stop playing football.

“I really realized that if I was doing what I actually wanted to do, I would not be having these issues with my friends or family,” Ballard said. “I quit with the thought of bringing those dreams and thoughts to light.

“If you’re going to play football or do something like that, you have to absolutely love it, because they are going to do what they can to get the most money out of you.”

• • •

After abruptly leaving Minnesota’s training camp in 2013, he didn’t find the transition to a non-football life easy.

“It was so hard to leave an environment in which you’re being violent every day,” Ballard said. “It was almost like I had to change my entire identity.”

Once he moved back to Lawrence, he applied to Kansas to further his education, hoping to start fresh.

He married Victoria Hallenbeck several weeks after he left the Viking’s camp, but even that was just a short reprieve.

The problem for him, he said, was that he didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do. Doubts started to pile up about whether those dreams were real.

His mother found it hard to connect to him as well, simply because she didn’t have any idea how to help.

“Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff he kept to himself,” she said. “Quite honestly, he was doing something I can’t relate to.”

Once Ballard got into school, he met Professor Jon Swindell, who eventually became his mentor.

“He really helped me realize that leaving something that was that pertinent to our culture is a huge decision,” Ballard said. “He kept telling me that if I brought the same passion that I had at Iowa into my art, then there would not have to be very much that I would have to worry about.”

To him, it was a wake-up call; he believed it drove him to notice what was really going on in the world. Ballard says his art comes from and is inspired by the injustices in the world.

While in the process of figuring out what exactly he wanted to do with his post-football life as he worked toward completing his degree, he met another student, Trevor Eagleman.

“My first impression was that he kind of stood out because he was a big old football player,” Eagleman said. “It was very obvious that he was there for different reasons from the rest of us.”

The two slowly became friends, and Ballard started to bring in some of his sketches and drawings to show to Eagleman, who quickly became interested.

“There was some really cool stuff in there,” he said. “Later that summer, we talked more about partnering up and doing some drawing together.”

• • •

As Ballard refined his talents, he became serious about graphic novels and the possibility of starting a business. Ballard gathered a small group of artists and writers, including his childhood friend DeMaris Patton.

The group — called Chronic Comix — is working on two graphic novels, Special Forces and Azerael’s Fall.

In Special Forces, children with disabilities get superpowers after taking a drug that’s supposed to cure them. The original concept was Patton’s idea and it was something he’d talked about with Ballard for quite some time.

“I’m not much of an artist,” Patton said. “I’m more working on the computer and putting everything together. [Ballard] is more of the artist, that’s for sure.”

Azerael’s Fall, on the other hand, has more of a religious theme and brings in spiritual and mythological characters from throughout history.

Recently, Ballard took some of his work to Kansas City for Planet Comicon, where he plans on taking some of the prints he makes and sell them while he gets his graphic novels up and running.

At Planet Comicon, he managed to snag a booth near the established artists, which helped connect him to others in the industry.

“Our competition was super intense; we got a lot of traffic because we were around a lot of talent,” he said. “There were a lot of people that wanted to cross-promote with us and people who wanted to get on board.

“Hopefully, this is all going to lead up to something bigger,” he said.

Ballard would like to create a company that is widespread enough to show off amateur and up-and-coming artists who don’t have another place to promote themselves.

Ultimately, he’d also like to design art for video games. While that might not be in the immediate future, he’s dreaming big.

“If you don’t start to dream you’re going to take over Marvel or take over DC, then you’re just going to fall in that category of wishes,” he said.

“We have a story line, and we have some talent, I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t make a splash in the industry if we can’t pull people together.”

Whether he ever manages to unseat DC or Marvel is a moot point. Ballard doesn’t need tremendous amounts of money to feel successful — he learned that while in the NFL.

His success is simply finding something he loves to do and being able to do it every day.

That, at least, is his perspective.


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