Sonny Bill Williams: ‘I was the picture of success but I was deeply unhappy’

ABs legend speaks about journey from the side of a mountain to the top of the game

There is one photograph that Sonny Bill Williams knew he wanted to include in his book. It's a simple late-1980s Polaroid-quality image: Sonny giddy in his father's arms, his older brother Johnny lost in a private world and his mother smiling. The young family stands in front of a lit fireplace.

"You mention my mum and I'm sitting here with a smile," Williams says from his home in Sydney, needlessly apologising for the happy babble of kids playing in the background. "Because she has an activist streak that shines through in the book. Just that picture of my mom and my dad. She is in her late 20s at a time in New Zealand when a white lady and a black man together would have turned a few heads. And she is not only white, she's a redhead with freckles. And my Dad is an Islander with an afro, you know. For conventional traditional people that would not have sat right. But she didn't care."

The photo is a starting point for Williams. The family lived then in state housing in Mount Albert, on the edge of Auckland and virtually on the side of a mountain that held a paradise for mischievous, energetic youngsters. "You jumped the fence and the mountain was your backyard."

Johnny said to me early on, 'if you stay here with us you'll end up where I am. Make something of us!'

In the book, he writes of a home in which a loving atmosphere was frequently compromised by his father’s drinking, which Sonny later learned was a response to “a tough upbringing with extremely violent uncles after his mother abandoned him at the age of 10.”

Williams and his siblings had the opposite experience. There’s a terrific recollection of the day when Lee, their mother, stormed into an Islander church to upbraid the congregation after Sonny had been slapped around by an older kid. It reads like an exhilarating time – but within an Islander community suffering from displacement and limited opportunities and the usual cycles of violence and drink and drug abuse. Johnny, a promising league player, sold recreational drugs for a time in his early 20s before turning things around, travelling with Sonny on his rugby adventures and, later, into the Muslim faith.

“If it wasn’t for his mistakes, I wouldn’t have learned. I was hanging with him and his mates and it was the road I was most likely to walk down because it was all I ever knew. Johnny said to me early on, ‘if you stay here with us you’ll end up where I am. Make something of us!’ So when I play, he plays, when I fail he fails. When I read some of the things he said I got real emotional. Because I knew it but hadn’t heard it.”

Williams's ability to harness his supreme athletic potential – he was a physical exception by the age of 14 – catapulted him beyond the boundaries of Mount Albert and into the epicentre of New Zealand's sports culture, first as a rugby league prodigy and, in the second phase of his life, as the electrical current capable of lighting stadiums on the peerless All Blacks teams of the 2010s. Williams retired from rugby after the World Cup in Japan, having made the journey from buck to the grand old man on the team at 34. "Oh, well Kieran Read looked way older than me," he teases . . . "but nah, I was the oldest."

Full circle

He spent lockdown with Alan Duff, the Maori writer best known for the novel Once Were Warriors, which became a cult movie chronicling the atmosphere of bleakness and resignation running through 20th century Islanders transplanted to the cities. It's clear that Williams is equally interested in setting out his struggle to locate his sense of values and serenity as in reminiscing on his rugby life. It required a stripping down of everything that formed him, including his early days and his descriptions of how his father lived.

“Yeah, delving into the book I had to sit down with the old man and really talk to him. He was my main concern and I wanted him to understand that yes, I had to bring up a few things he is probably not proud of. He has remarried and I don’t think his wife now knew the struggles he had growing up. At times, I won’t lie, it was a bit of a struggle talking about it at the start. But our relationship is really good now because I see the growth in him and where he is now, full circle from his upbringing, I learned a lot from him. And I couldn’t tell my story without telling his story.”

Williams’s story is both typical and entirely unique. The 21st century star spotlight moves quickly now but Williams was a huge international draw: a rampaging hard-hitting ball carrier with an outrageous knack for weaving magic out of nothing situations. At his peak, he appeared to be physically indestructible.

And it was like: I was performing on the field so I can live how I want, I can have this drug, that drug, be with this woman. I've made it now!

Starting out with Sydney Bulldogs, he combined a high-octane training regime with all of the weekend pleasure-dome excesses he could squeeze in. Sleep didn't matter. In one passage, he details a Friday to Sunday binge which he had permitted himself because he had an operation on Monday morning. When he came through, the surgeon was furious: they'd discovered in his blood stream a cocktail of alcohol and chemicals which, combined with the anaesthetic, could easily have killed him. Williams looks back at that person with a combination of fear and bewilderment.

"From the outside I was the picture of success but I was deeply unhappy. It was a facade and I was still playing some amazing football. So it looked like I had it worked out. It was down to the choices I was making off the field. It is like Instagram now – we all put the perfect picture out there but behind that is the trials that everyone has. I feel like I am still a work in progress. But at that time when everything looked perfect: I hate saying it like this but it appeared from the outside as this good looking young man who had fame and money and attention from the opposite sex and had privileges. I didn't say 'no' to things. I had a psychotic simplistic mindset that I am going to make it on TV and buy my mom a house with fancy wallpaper. That drove me to crazy lengths and that filtered into the party lifestyle.

“And it was like: I was performing on the field so I can live how I want, I can have this drug, that drug, be with this woman. I’ve made it now! And when you live a life without boundaries, this is what can happen. With that boundary-less life, I didn’t feel any empowerment. Now, I don’t wake up with a hangover and feeling disgusted in myself and soulless. Now, I feel a life of empowerment.”

Williams’s conversion to Islam began almost 15 years ago when he was a breakout star in rugby league. He met Khoder Nasser, a fight promoter – and a Muslim. He was intrigued.

Cartoonish ‘bad-boy’

“I was still going out and partying. But I saw the way they were living. If you said that’s a nice shirt, the shirt would almost be off their body before I had finished speaking. It is all about hospitality and deeds and good intentions. It is about wanting for your fellow brother what you want for yourself. And I knew nothing about Islam apart from what you see in the media. I felt they were praying all the time. God is always on their mind and on their tongue. How they eat. When they eat. Wow! And it was enticing for someone like me.”

Spend any time speaking with Williams and it’s obvious that his faith has become the central tenet of his existence. Hesitant and painfully shy when he first stepped into the public eye, he has developed into a natural communicator, with a bright disposition and a casual, fond use of the term “brother”.

A series of high-profile incidents quickly created the cartoonish 'bad-boy' caricatures. A casual phone call from Tana Umaga, the great All Blacks centre, effectively changed his life. Umaga offered him, in 2008, an opportunity to go and play for Toulon, switching codes from league to union. The money on the table was attractive but the offer of escape more so. His decision to break his contract with the Bulldogs was heavily criticised and he was pursued legally and hit with a Aus$1 million breach of contract clause – which he had to pay. It was worth it.

My whole rugby journey matches up with what I was trying to do spiritually. That is why France was such a blessed time. Jonny is the picture of that

Jonny Wilkinson, the metronomic England goal kicker, features prominently among the people who became unofficial lodestars in his life. The arrival of Williams to northern hemisphere rugby was a huge story. But it took him a long time to pluck up the courage to ask Wilkinson to go for a cup of coffee. And the Toulon apprenticeship created the template for Williams's ascension to the All Blacks jersey.

"My whole rugby journey matches up with what I was trying to do spiritually. That is why France was such a blessed time. Jonny is the picture of that – he is so humble and giving of his time. He was a World Cup winner, against all odds. And he was the main man with Toulon. I knew him from that World Cup.

“And I couldn’t believe he was talking to me as he was. ‘Sonny, I need the ball in your hands. What are you seeing? This is how we play Sonny. Goal-line to forty, we want to exit well. Forty to forty we will have a couple of phases. But forty to their try line: it is on. I need the ball in your hands, play what you see.’ And with all the teams, even with the All Blacks, I kept that simple formula and that is when I played my best footie.”

After he was selected for the All Blacks, Williams’s appeal reached a brand new audience. The second half of his rugby life coincided with another serendipitous moment, when he wandered into a clothes store and met Alana, who became his wife. She waved off his attempts to obtain her phone number. He left his own with a colleague. A few weeks later, she learned that he was Muslim and got in touch. He didn’t know she shared the Muslim faith until he met her family. Then comes one of the more startling sentences in the book: “The day after seeing Alana and meeting her family, I changed my phone number and deleted my contacts. Four weeks later, we were married”.

‘Best husband I could be’

“People say that is crazy. But for us, we committed to something that was greater than ourselves. In 2013 I had been a Muslim for a few years but my biggest struggle was the opposite sex. I wasn’t treating women like I used to – I was never disrespectful but it was easy come, easy go. At that stage the test was still there. When I met my wife it was the missing link in my life. Yes I was very attracted to her but it needed to be more than that.

“I had to show so much respect and be the best husband I could be. She had to be the best wife she could be. The respect was there. I spoke with her at length about what I had done in my past and what I wanted to do and I asked her if she wanted to be a part of that journey. And she wanted to, wholeheartedly. And it started off with the boundaries that Islam brought. Then came these little blessings you hear. We have struggles and arguments but the seed of communication and understanding our roles was planted at the start.”

Since retiring from rugby, Williams has resumed his periodic boxing career: so far, he has fought and won eight fights, including a bout against Francois Botha, over the years. But he is also emerging as an advocate for the advancement of Islanders. He'll be keeping a keen eye on the All Blacks' November tour. Williams was in Dublin in 2018 when Ireland had their euphoric moment against New Zealand. It briefly catapulted Ireland into a position of genuine World Cup contention. The visitors were gracious and subdued that night. And behind the celebrations was the sense that the Irish were walking into a dark forest.

“It is funny you say that. Yeah, it hurt the boys in the sheds of course, and the dressingroom afterwards that night was like a funeral. But for me, yeah, as you say this was a high for Ireland. And I am a big believer in that mental warfare. You need to know your players. Because when you get to that level, everyone can pass the ball and has the small skillsets. It is getting to that mental space. So Ireland’s drop off was the World Cup.

"But I remember that quarter-final against Ireland in Tokyo. We were in the dressingrooms afterwards and I sat there and I could see the happiness in a lot of the boys' faces and on Shag's [All Blacks coach Steve Hansen] face.

“And I think it stemmed from that 2018 loss. And I turned and I said to Ofa [Tu’ungafasi]: ‘Boys, if we have this same performance next week we are gonna lose. This is not good enough to beat England. I remember that feeling as clear as day. And there were a lot of other things that came into play. But we were a bit too happy in that dressingroom. And yeah, maybe it came back to bite, you know.”

Japan was Willams’s public goodbye as an All Black. He officially retired from both league and union in March. Now that he has found his voice, a second career beckons. He’s 36 and feels – literally – filled with blessings. When he last visited his old home in Auckland, the landscape had changed. “I guess they’ve sold those houses off. It’s like a flash area now.” Alana and Sonny took their children to try to explain what life had been like for their father. It wasn’t easy to communicate.

“My struggle was that we didn’t have much,” Williams says. “I think now, the struggle is that many kids have too much. And I’m still searching for the answer there, brother. You know: what do you do with that?”

– You Can't Stop The Sun From Shining by Sonny Bill Williams with Alan Duff is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

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