From a shy teenager to a sporting superstar and now a champion for refugee rights, Sonny Bill Williams describes himself as a work in progress. He speaks to Kim Knight ahead of the release of his new autobiography.
It is standard operating procedure to begin an autobiography with a childhood memory - a linchpin on which everything else twists and turns.
Sonny Bill Williams was an empty book.
"I couldn't think of anything significant," he writes. "Until my wife reminded me of an event so significant it helped define my life."
Williams was a little kid at an Auckland Barnardos daycare. Inside, two teenagers were cooking chips. The pan caught fire and they ran outdoors. Maybe the pan exploded, maybe it was thrown across the yard in panic and fear. Nobody really knows how it happened, but:
"I ended up with boiling fat down the back of my legs. I guess one reason I've blanked it out all this time is the pain. It's a kind of pain only someone who's been severely burnt can understand."
The skin grafts were so fragile, his parents were not allowed physical contact. Williams spent at least six months in the intensive burns unit at Auckland Hospital. At 4 years old, he came home in a wheelchair.
In adulthood, he writes: "I must have blanked it out, again parking the memory in some dark corner of my mind."
In fact, he has told a version of this story before. Back in 2019, a young rheumatic fever patient at Starship Children's Hospital asked Williams if he'd ever been in a wheelchair. "Yes," said the sporting superstar, revealing spare details of the childhood trauma. Media reported 11-year-old Eru's scoop as a "bombshell" headline and moved on. Today, Williams has the microphone - and he's in a reflective mood.
Sonny Bill Williams, 36, has represented New Zealand in rugby league, rugby and rugby sevens. He competed at the Olympics and was a World Boxing Association international heavyweight champion. He is also a convert to Islam, married with four kids and, after his retirement from the field earlier this year, a television sports commentator.
At primary school, the other kids called him "Kentucky Fried Chicken legs". He was "SBL", an acronym that stood for "Sonny Burnt Legs". By the time he hit Intermediate, he was wearing long pants on even the hottest days. When he played footy on the weekends, he says, his legs were so white and scarred "it felt like they glowed". Once, he tried to cover them up with a bad fake tan. He casts himself as a shy child with poor self-esteem, made worse as he became more self-conscious.
Williams writes: "I think the burns had a huge psychological effect on me. Growing up, I had a lot of demons from that. But I think I turned that on its head, too; I was determined to make those skinny white legs muscly. Maybe it made me train harder?
"When I talked about it with Alan Duff for this book, he suggested that the experience took me to the edge of the pain barrier, which means I can push myself harder at training than others can. He may have a point; even if the memory is buried, the knowledge is there."
You Can't Stop the Sun from Shining is 300-plus, hard-backed pages of Williams' attempt to unbury his past. Released this Tuesday, it has been written in conjunction with Duff, the author most famous for Once Were Warriors. They've been talking about the collaboration since 2017. Last week, over a video call from Australia, where he is now based, Williams told the Weekend Herald he'd been approached "a few times" to do a book, acknowledging that a couple had already been written without his involvement.
"I retired from rugby and rugby league and I had a bit of extra time. I just thought, you know, I've got to walk that talk. It's going to be really uncomfortable and I'm going to have to go to places and talk about things . . . "
Things like drugs. And sex. Or, as he writes, deliberately and specifically "cocaine, painkillers, prescriptions, women, alcohol".
Williams, who grew up in the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert, was just 14 when he was optioned by Australia's Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league club; at 15 he moved to Sydney. He lived in a scholarship house with nine other boys and chose work in an embroidery factory over school when he discovered the latter would delay his NRL debut. At 17, he made the reserve grade ("playing against men - hard, experienced, fully grown men"). One year later, he was in the starting lineup for the Bulldogs first game of the season; four games after that, he was named as a New Zealand international in the Kiwis team.
It was fast. And it was a lot. He was 18 years old.
"As a young male with wealth and fame, at that time it wasn't like 'bro, you're bad'. It was like 'pat on the shoulder, bro - you're the man'. But something, deep inside me, just didn't feel right."
When rape allegations swirled around the Bulldogs camp, he lined up with everybody else to give DNA samples. No charges were laid, but: "Looking back at it now, we didn't add water to the flames, we stoked the fire, in the sense that we went to the police station in jandals and shorts, you know? It was a tough time for the players that had wives and kids. For me, as a youngster, it was a mad learning experience. Obviously, I didn't learn my lesson, because a couple of years later, I was in a lot of trouble for other things."
He describes taking sleeping tablets and "having a smoke" to relax. There was an all-weekend bender that only ended because he knew he had a surgery appointment (afterwards, the doctor told him there were so many drugs in his system he could have died). A drink-driving charge. A "toilet tryst" scandal with a champion ironwoman that was caught on camera.
"I was struggling," he says now. "I was wrestling with it, but I wasn't saying no."
Williams says sport saved him. He grew up around drinking, gambling, violence, relatives in gangs and not much money. But there was also his tiny, red-haired and freckled mum marching, into a Pacific Island church, demanding the pastor find the kids who had just given her son a hiding, to make them apologise. In a way, his upbringing also saved him. Deep down, says Williams, he knew he could be a better man because of the fundamentals he learned from his mother and father.
"I was struggling because I knew that there were these principles instilled in me. Like, I'm actually a good person - but without these boundaries, I'm a slave to my desires. It's hard to say that. I was selfish. I treated a lot of people wrong, I treated women how they shouldn't have been treated . . . "
There are tattoos over the worst of the burn scars. The rest is a work in progress. Williams says it's his faith that now provides the structure he desperately sought. The short version of this ongoing story begins when he is in his "play hard, party hard" spiral. Williams knows he's running astray, he knows he wants to be more like his beloved mum. He meets fight promoter and enigmatic sports agent Khoder Nasser. Something clicks.
"When I talked to Khoder about his life," writes Williams, "He started telling me a bit about his faith and what being a Muslim meant to him. Gradually, some part of me seized on that. This was something greater than myself."
Being a better man, says Williams, makes you a better footy player.
"You know, five times a day, I have to pray. And I'm at my most happiest when I'm praying with my heart, not my limbs. We just want to be happy, you know. And it's given me that happiness, that true happiness to be my real, authentic self."
But: "What you've got to remember is I haven't been a Muslim all my life."
In 2008, the year before his conversion to Islam, he had acquired a new nickname. "Money Bill Williams" - the man who quit rugby league and went to France chasing bigger bucks with rugby union.
"The narrative out there was 'look at this money-hungry party boy dickhead who thinks he can do what he wants and doesn't give a crap' . . . you know, I was in a million-dollars debt when I left. It wasn't about rugby, I just needed to get away - running away from problems and starting afresh, I guess."
Williams was, by then, being managed by Nasser. He'd asked Nasser to look at the possibility of a contract with a Super League Club. Instead, got an offer to play rugby union in the south of France. The call from coach Tana Umaga came out of the blue and at completely the right time, but not without penalties.
It cost $750k to break the Bulldogs contract. Legal fees mounted and the fallout from fans was brutal. He was a "deserter" who had made "a huge mistake". He was, according to the Times, "the most hated man in Australia today".
"It's funny, you know, when you think about the stuff you did when you are young, you're like 'how the hell did I do that?' . . . you know, I guess I didn't really think about it too much, until I wrote the book and actually, well that was actually massive.
"Leaving the Bulldogs. Getting on that plane. What the hell was I thinking? It's actually frightening, some of the stuff where I've just been like 'yeah, nah, okay I'll do it . . . '."
There's a story he tells about the time he came home and learned his parents were separating. His siblings - older brother, Johnny, and twin sisters, Denise and Niall - had already decided they would stay with their mum. Williams is devoted to his mum but he didn't like the idea of his dad living alone and so chose to stay with his father.
"It's that heart," he says now. "That empathy. I used to think that was a weakness. When I first started playing professional sport, you know, we have to be tough and strong and we can't feel this. For so long, I'd hide it. Now I see it as a strength."
Besides, he says laughing, "you know, the old man he wasn't going to sit there and make me lunch every day - he'd give me five bucks, 10 bucks, and I'd go to Johnny, 'look what I got, Bro'."
Switching codes. Exploring a new faith. These are big - and sometimes unpopular - decisions. Says Williams: "Without putting yourself in the uncomfortableness, that uncomfortable position, there's no growth at all . . . You know what? I'd rather move to a little farm with my family and be relatively unknown and just live my life through the kids and keep it to that type of buzz. But if I'm being authentic, I've got to walk in that uncomfortable space."
The rugby league star became a rugby union star. He picked up boxing to pay the Bulldog bills. There was the promise of a place in the French national side, "and that would have been a lot of money too . . . but who gives a damn? If I'm going to play rugby, I want to play at the highest level and I want to play for New Zealand. You know what I mean? Like, let's go!"
Williams has made a lifetime of headlines. The new book recounts the highs, lows, controversies, world-famous off-loads - and one surprising admission: He first saw the All Blacks play live just one week before he took the field alongside them.
"Well," he says, his huge physique filling the tiny laptop screen recording this interview. "I grew up in a household where it was frowned upon if you even mentioned the word. You know, mum's family and dad's family, were all real hearty league supporters. We did not watch any rugby games!
"The first game I actually went to watch [live] was when we were in France. Tana got us tickets and we drove down there - was that in the book?"
It was. Spoiler: They got to the stadium, but somebody forgot the tickets.
"Fast forward, 18 months later and I'm watching them in Hong Kong for the first time. It was a pretty cool experience. And then, the next week, I'm actually starting in, you know, what people say is the home of rugby - Twickenham - in that huddle, looking across and seeing Keven Mealaumu, Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko. Seeing those guys and I was like, 'man, I'm actually here'. It was actually a real, surreal moment."
Williams' mum is half-Australian and his dad is Samoan. Growing up, he says, he felt like he was on the edge, between two worlds. And in one of those worlds, Pacific Islanders dug holes, painted houses and worked night shifts.
"You're not supposed to ask questions; you're just supposed to shut your mouth and do as you're told," he writes. "I had to wrestle against that in-built mentality in order to believe I could do and be anything. I didn't think I could do anything except sport. On the rugby field, I was the boss. I had to tell myself I had the best job, not the sh***iest."
Never seeing anyone in your family hold a position of power can, says Williams, subconsciously plant a seed.
"I'd call this book a success in 12 months, if I have a few young guys that were me, in that same position, being like 'Bro, Sonny, if you can do it . . . '."
He calls it "wearing the vulnerability hat". When he went back to school to study, his wife Alana had to teach him how to type. When he began his television commentary work, he felt true nerves.
"Okay, I might not be able to say and pronounce the exact same words . . . but a lot of my people understand the lingo that I talk. I might stuff up, but I'm holding the flag of vulnerability and courage."
The last chapter of the new book is called "finding my voice". The teen who moved to Sydney is a grown man campaigning for better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian Government. After the Christchurch mosque attacks, he travelled to the city with other prominent Muslim athletes to give support and respect to those affected.
"I had to step into that space being you know, an All Black and a Muslim in New Zealand, so I had to step up, even though I probably didn't want to.
"It was a tough time, man, knowing he had [also] scoped out Auckland and Waikato. You know, all three mosques, I would attend regularly when I was living in those places. It hit home too because at that time, that's when I had started taking my daughter, on Fridays . . . "
Williams calls his children "little blessings". You can hear them occasionally, in the background of this Zoom call. An occasional shout or laugh from another room. The girls got new bikes the day before this interview and they want their dad to take them to the park.
"Four little ones, and they're just running amok really," he says with a grin. It's scary being a dad but there's this analogy he lives by. You can't just get off the camel and let it roam free. You've got to tie up the camel.
"You've got to do your due diligence and that's how I try and live my life with my kids as well . . .
"I don't ever want them to look at me and be like 'this guy's full of s**t' . . . In our household, I always try and be authentic. I try and lead by example and just be a real present father. And I hope, god willing, that they see that: Okay, through his example, you can change and be better.
"I've been there, and I've done that, but through discipline and being a better person daily, you can achieve something great and be a good person in society."
In 2011, a New Zealand Herald journalist suggested that one day, "someone will write an authorised biography on SBW - and it's going to be a grotesque piece of puffery". It is true that nobody interviewed in this book has a bad word to say about Williams. Except, perhaps, Williams himself.
"That's what I'm proud of," he says. "I'm a work in progress."
You Can't Stop the Sun from Shining: Sonny Bill Williams with Alan Duff, Hachette Aotearoa NZ, $49.99 Hardback, releasing October 12.