By Jessica Tyson of Whakaata Maori
Sonny Bill Williams is one of New Zealand's highest sporting achievers in rugby, league and boxing but has copped more than his share of criticism along the way.
In an extended interview with Te Ao with Moana reporter Hikurangi Jackson, Williams explained how he copes with the criticism and talked about his life as a father, his faith and his love of sport.
Williams first lit up the NRL at just 18, playing for the Bulldogs. Then he shocked the league world by switching codes to rugby union, attracting massive scrutiny and criticism from both media and fans alike.
"Being a Polynesian, being a Muslim but also being a sportsman, doing what was best for me early on … I think that rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way, especially the conservative types. You know, who was this larrikin loud-mouth guy that thinks he can just go from this code to that code or go play over here," Williams says.
"I always was like, if I feel like I'm being a good person, I'm training hard, working hard and being a team man, whatever team I'm in, I feel like I'm all good."
Blocked it out
Williams admitted the negative media coverage did get to him but he had a way to deal with it.
"I worked out how to block it out, which was a lot better for my mental health. So there'd be times when I wouldn't go on social media. There'd be times where I wouldn't go and read any papers," Williams said.
"And I always trained hard. I always put the effort in the gym and I always strove to be the best teammate that I could be but I was trying to block out that outside noise sometimes because little comments or articles would get to me."
In his sporting career so far, Williams has won two Rugby World Cup trophies with the All Blacks, 12 caps for the Kiwis, one super rugby title, one ITM Cup title, the NRL title in his first season with the Bulldogs and another one when he returned to the NRL aged 28 with the Sydney Roosters.
In 2009 Williams converted to Islam. He says it helped him when he was losing his way in the chaotic world of professional sport. His brother and his mother also converted.
"When it came to the mental health struggles that I was having at that time, I've always believed in God. So for myself, I knew I needed God and, when I went down that religious path, I studied, I studied, I studied and it brought me to Islam."
'A higher purpose'
But when Williams converted, he did get a reaction from some of his teammates.
"I've had some pretty hearty conversations with some of the boys that are Christians. For myself, when it comes into that space, I always say to the bro, to whoever we're having that conversation with 'I can't tell you how to feel just like you can't tell me how to feel'," Williams says.
"From a team perspective, we just come to common ground always, that we believe in a higher purpose, which is really nice."
Throughout his career, Williams has been a vocal advocate for Polynesian, Māori and Muslim communities, aspiring to be "a voice for the voiceless," he says.
"I come from a Housing Corp household, both parents in low-income jobs, all my uncles in the Black Power. I never really saw anyone in a high position of power," he says.
"I feel like I need to represent that and I represent that through my actions as much as I can."
In 2021, Williams released his biography where he detailed the highs and lows of his sporting career and revealed more personal insights into his whānau and faith.
Since then, he's been moved by feedback from readers, including a member of the New Zealand Māori rugby team.
"He called me the other day and he was almost in tears just saying how much the book has affected him in a positive way. I remember thinking before I wrote the book that if it can affect one person like that, it'll be a success," Williams says.
He's retired from playing footy but is still boxing.
This year he was upskilling himself by training with world champion Tyson Fury and is now on the verge of adding another highlight to his sporting career – a potential match with YouTube boxing sensation Jake Paul that could draw in millions of viewers.
"There's a lot of hula hoops to get through before it all comes to fruition," Williams says.
"I feel like those people just want to get into this Australian market too so if I keep making noise down here, then it could happen."
Williams lives in Sydney with his wife and four children. He is also working as a sports commentator.
He admits he doesn't enjoy watching himself on television but insists proudly that his wife has his back.
"My wife made me sit down the other night and watch me doing commentary. She said, 'Oh, I'm proud of where you at. You've got to sit down and watch, you know. You're not where you want to be but you're getting a lot better and you should be confident and be proud of yourself where you're at'."
Williams says he and his South African wife are happy living in Sydney for now and have no plans to move.
"All my kids are Australian. They're happy going to schools here. It'll be funny if my boys reached the heights that I reached, I always talk to my wife. 'Who are they going to play for? South Africa, Australia, New Zealand or Samoa? So we'll see.'"