Sonny Bill Williams on his struggles and conversion to Islam

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Sonny Bill Williams (RNZ Picture)

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Wellington, October 12, 2021

Sonny Bill Williams is a star across three rugby codes, a New Zealand Professional Boxing Association  (NZPBA) Heavyweight Boxing Champion, and an Olympian.

During his 17-year Rugby career, Sonny Bill was part of the Rugby World Cup-winning sides in 2011 and 2015, as well as a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs.

But controversy has also tracked his professional career; alcohol and drug abuse, breaking his contract with the Bulldogs to go play Rugby Union in France and accusations of chasing money.

His memoir, You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining, was co-written with Alan Duff and gives an insight into the low self-esteem of a young man who was really just a boy when first scouted by the Bulldogs.

Move to Sydney, Bulldogs

Speaking from his home in Sydney, Sonny Bill Williams told Kathryn Ryan that his move to Australia at the age of 14 to join the Bulldogs came from a childhood drive to succeed.

“I thought that the guy was just doing me a favour, even when I signed my contract. But I think that with a lot of other things that happened in my childhood, [it] really drove me to push myself to levels that I still look back at now and think, man, that was crazy. I was a little bit of a psychopath when it came to sport and how dedicated I was.

“Outrageous flash offloads, big hits were born in the backyard down the road with the cousins and the extended family, and then even trying to do the big hits on my sisters and my brother… it’s not a surprise when I see my sister, who plays for the New Zealand Sevens, the way that she plays footy, because that was born in the household too,” he said.

His severe burns on his legs after an accident in preschool and coming from a mixed-race family further accentuated his self-esteem problems, he said.

“In primary school, I used to get called ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken legs,’ and I remember going to intermediate on the first day and I wore shorts and I remember walking down the corridor and girls stopping and saying ‘oh my god, look at his legs’. I never wore shorts to school from then,.” Sonny said.

Positive outlook imperative

It egged him on to want to succeed, to buy his mother a house, to be the best player, he said, and out of that his impactful shoulder charge was born.

“Someone who goes through that type of trauma, I used it for positivity in the only way I could and that was through training hard. When we look at the Polynesian players, they’re really big, physical, and strong, and here I was this little white skinny, lanky fella claiming to be Samoan, well, for anyone that thought otherwise, I was going to show them, and that’s where the shoulder charge came from,” he said.

Although his father was not the best husband, Williams said, he was still a great father who saw talent in his children before they even came to realise it.

“My relationship with my father is unreal now because I understand the hardship and struggles that they went through because that’s all they’ve ever known. You have to give grace. My household growing up, it was not about thriving, it was about surviving, paycheque to paycheque,” Sonny said.

Understanding struggles off-field

It meant that he never got a chance to understand the struggles off-field before he went to Australia and how to deal with them, he said.

In League, he won NRL titles with the Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters. 

After being voted one of the top 13 players in the world and achieving a lifelong dream of playing for the NRL, everything came crashing down when he lost his way, Sonny said.

“It was just self-destruction … it all came too fast, I said that I was never instilled or helped with the pressures that would come off the field. I struggled with it, I made a lot of selfish decisions and thought ‘well I made it, I can go drink with the boys because that’s all we do.’ All those poor decisions, all those selfish decisions, treating my body the way I was, treating women the way I was, it was eating away at my soul and I felt like I just was soulless at that time,” he said.

Sonny had a tough time confronting his problems head-on and wanted to run away, but his problems only followed him to France.

Heavy debt and interest-free loan

And it didn’t come easy, breaking his contract with the Bulldogs meant he was nearly $1 million in debt.

So Anthony Mundine lent him the money interest-free, and Khoder Nasser, who was a manager for both then, offered Williams a venture into boxing to help pay off a little of what he owed.

“It is funny, at the start it was through necessity, and now I have gone to love it so much that even though I have hung up the boots, I am getting back in the ring and I have given myself a couple of years where I want to dedicate myself to boxing craft, just to see where it takes me but also just to tick that box and close that door as well,” Sonny said.

Thanks to the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Tana Umaga, Williams was able to gain confidence overseas before taking on a challenge to return to compete against the best in New Zealand, despite the next French team coach offering him a spot, he says.

Conversion to Islam

It was also through Nasser that Williams learnt about Islam and eventually converted, which he says helped him face his inner demons.

“I have always believed in God and the oneness in of God but hanging around with Khoder and the Muslim brothers and finding out more about Islam and the structure of it, it really connected with me. Firstly it connected in the sense that it is a daily thing, it helps with the daily struggles that I was facing and then secondly it just connected with me, it connected with my soul and just made me happy,” Sonny said.

He knows that he is by no means perfect and that he is always a work in progress.

“Through education and through upskilling myself, I have come to where I am in my life, where I am really happy and content in what I am and who I’m trying to be. Sometimes, I have made a lot of mistakes but when I look at the man I see in the mirror today, I am really proud, because I know although those struggles are still there, I strive daily to be better. My wife and four children have been important in his perseverance,” he said.

According to Sonny, the blessings that come with the children is twofold.

“Because you love your children so much, you see a little bit of you in each of them and the teachings they give you, You have to be more patient and more resilient, because the struggle is real sometimes. They do not care who you are, they do no care you played for the All Blacks or done this or that, they just see you as dad,” he said.

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