Kiwi sports legend Sonny Bill Williams has opened on the Christchurch mosque attacks anniversary and spoken about the heartbreak of meeting shooting survivors who he remains in touch with two years on.
The prominent Muslim, cross-code former All Black, Kiwis rugby league international, and boxing champion gave an in-depth, frank interview with the Weekend Herald before today's national memorial service to the 51 Muslims murdered during Friday prayer at two Christchurch mosques on March 15, 2019.
Father-of-four Williams, 35, who confirmed his professional rugby and rugby league retirement this week, used to pray at the Al Noor Mosque – targeted by the Australian terrorist - when he played for the Crusaders in 2011.
But on Friday, March 15 2019, he was living in Auckland playing for the Blues. Williams picked his daughter up from school that afternoon and took her to the local masjid.
Afterwards, Williams dropped her back at school and rushed to a chiropractor's appointment. He kept his phone off and got some treatment.
It was only after the appointment, when he got into his car and grabbed his phone, that news of the Christchurch attack hit him.
"There was like 20 missed calls and I think, 'Holy s***' and straight away you think, 'Oh my family, my family' but yeah that was it … it just blew up in my face," says Williams, speaking from Australia yesterday.
"I got real emotional because I had spent time down there – that was my local masjid when I was down there. And I know how close-knit that community was.
"It really hit home when it's like, 'Man, that could've been me with my daughter at the masjid'."
Stunned, sitting there in his car, a visibly-distraught Williams posted a video to social media.
"To everyone killed in Christchurch who has been killed," he said. "Your families … just sending my [love and prayers] to you. You are now in paradise. I'm just deeply, deeply saddened that this would happen in New Zealand."
Like many Kiwis that dark day, Williams struggled to comprehend that the attacks had happened on New Zealand soil, adding that it felt surreal.
In the days after the tragedy, he flew to Christchurch and visited grieving families and survivors with gunshot wounds.
He also attended the first Friday prayer held in Hagley Park, directly opposite the Al Noor Mosque where 42 Muslims were murdered just seven days earlier.
Williams, who converted to Islam in 2009 while playing rugby union in France, felt immense pride at witnessing first-hand the strength of the community.
"How strong they were in their faith … you just have to see the video of the first victim who says 'As-salamu' to the guy who actually shoots him," he says.
He remains in contact with some of the March 15 victims and families. They remain in his thoughts and prayers every day.
"For such a barbaric act, the result was a lot of love and beauty, from the victims and the community," he says.
"Some of the victims are in paradise and, inshallah, we keep putting spotlight not just on Islam, but in that space where we keep teaching our kids consistently reinforcing that age-old saying of treat others the way you want to be treated."
After the initial shock of the attack, Williams said he put aside any natural shyness to stand up as a leader and "show we are Muslims but New Zealanders too".
While he was thankful that the terror attacks opened up a national conversation around race and Islam in New Zealand, he believes "we should never stop striving to talk about it".
"We're fearful of the unknown. But once you shine light on it, you can really take it for what it is.
"The beauty of that barbaric event was that the spotlight was firmly placed on Islam in New Zealand and it opened up a lot of people's hearts and they understood truly how beautiful Islam is."
For years, most Kiwis when they met Williams, just wanted to talk rugby.
Now, the first Muslim to play for the All Blacks says they often ask him about Islam.
"People actually ask me for advice with the struggles they face in this world and what's the answer, what gives you the contentment and solace you seem to have with Islam, and I think that's one of the beautiful things to come from this, because people have understood that, man, how can you have someone, your father or family member die, and then a week later you're saying you forgive the bloke …"
Given his prominence as a Kiwi Muslim, William knows that people will naturally look to him for leadership.
But he says he prefers to lead through his actions.
And he revealed that converting to Islam helped turn his life around.
"In my journey, Islam allowed me to thrive as a man, where I felt I was almost dead inside.
"I don't necessarily sit here and think I've got a hold of the flag or the banner of Islam, I just go about my business and try to be the best man I can be."
He says he doesn't know life's answers but just tries to improve every day.
"The struggles are real, they come every day. But I have a way of life that keeps me accountable for my actions and helps me be better each day.
"I can say that with a lot of pride, strive to be better. Because I've tasted the life where it's all about the world. It was all about that type of buzz … but now I try to live my life in a different way."