NRL Expert @JennaBrooks
Sonny Bill Williams opens up on his past, embracing Islam and learning from mistakes
Last Updated: 26/11/19 2:29pm
When it comes to rugby, both league and union, he has one of the most famous names.
A fiercely religious man, who has tasted an enormous amount of success already in his 34 years.
He has 12 caps for the New Zealand rugby league team and 58 caps for the All Blacks in rugby union. He is a two-time Rugby World Cup and NRL Premiership winner, 2013 RLIF international player of the year - and he represented his homeland in the sevens tournament at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In 2020, Sonny Bill Williams embarks on a new challenge. He has signed a record-breaking two-year deal with Super League's newcomers Toronto Wolfpack.
But to really understand the code swapping superstar, you have to go back to the beginning.
Sonny Bill is the son of rugby league player John Williams and grandson of Auckland league icon - not to mention noted boxer - Bill Woolsey.
"My dad's side was very athletic, but my mother's side was just as much if not more so - the Woolseys," Williams told Sky Sports. "My pop was pretty well known back in New Zealand.
"I still have old guys coming up to me now saying 'Your grandfather was Bill Woolsey' and telling me stories. My pop was actually a boxer as well and he fought for the New Zealand cruiserweight title."
Williams grew up in state housing in suburban Auckland, with his passion for sport beginning at an early age. He played both codes of rugby and took part in athletics, where he was a promising sprinter and high jumper.
"I just saw sports from a young age as a pathway to success for myself," Williams said. "I see that growing up in a house with no wallpaper really instilled in me a fierce drive to buy mum a house."
It was that drive and determination which led to NRL side Canterbury Bulldogs coming calling for the man now simply known as SBW when he was still a teenager, changing his life forever.
"I was a mamma's boy and wanted to stay home and my brother said, 'bro, you've got to go or you're going to end up where I am"
Sonny Bill Williams
His older brother, John Arthur Williams, was a talented rugby league player as well - albeit never managing to make first grade. Nevertheless, Williams made the tough choice to pack up his life, leave his family and move to Australia.
It was a decision which saw him become the youngest player to sign for an NRL club.
"I was 14 at the time and my brother would have been 16, and he was definitely getting on the wrong side of the law - and that's when the Canterbury recruitment officer Mark Hughes just said, 'You can come over now or when you're 18'," Williams recalled.
"I was a mamma's boy and wanted to stay home and my brother said, 'bro, you've got to go or you're going to end up where I am."
It did not take long for the youngster to find his feet. Just three years after arriving at the Bulldogs, he won his first NRL Grand Final.
But sporting success brings fame and attention. In his early 20s, Williams was involved in various high-profile incidents involving alcohol.
The former All Blacks superstar admits to chasing girls, drinking and spending too much money, but despite all that he looks back on those times as key to his development.
"I didn't really drink until I made first grade," Williams said. "Was I equipped to handle the fame and attention? No.
"Sometimes when I would look in the mirror I wasn't proud of the person that was looking back at me, but now when I do, I have a smile on my face and I'm grateful for those life lessons."
In 2008 Williams turned his back on rugby league, walking out on the Bulldogs to take up a career playing union in Toulon. It was during this period in France that he found his religion, Islam.
"I always felt like I was searching for something and it came at a time in my life when I needed it," Williams said. "Islam has allowed me to grow into the man that I am.
"It also helps me strive to be not just the best sportsman that I can be, but the best man, husband and father that I can be.
"Islam has allowed me to grow into the man that I am. It also helps me strive to be not just the best sportsman that I can be, but the best man, husband and father that I can be"
Sonny Bill Williams
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but becoming a Muslim was one of the best things to ever happen to me, so I'm forever grateful."
Williams now freely admits one of those mistakes was the manner in which he left the Bulldogs 11 years ago.
"I wish the way I left I could have changed it, but I was young and insecure," Williams said. "You know when you're young you just think that everything is against you and that the world revolves around you.
"That was probably my mindset back then, that this person did me wrong. So there are always regrets in that sense and I've spoken to a lot of those people."
The decision to walk out over a contract dispute left the second-rower in enormous debt, which is how his professional boxing career began.
Yet it is a career which has seen the Kiwi win seven straight professional bouts as a heavyweight boxer, along with becoming champion of his homeland.
"I was a million dollars in debt," Williams said. "When I first took off from Australia I had to pay the million dollars back to the Canterbury Bulldogs.
"The two years that I lived in France it didn't cover that bill, so I had to have a couple of fights. So it was through necessity at the start if I'm honest."
And there could be more fights on the cards after agreeing a clause in his contract with Toronto, allowing him to box in the off-season.
But Williams, who returns to the 13-man code for a third time, insists that his immediate focus is settling into life with the Wolfpack - and with the money he is receiving, it is understandable.
A two-year deal, worth approximately £5m, makes the dual-code international the highest-paid player in the history of both codes.
"It's been a journey, a hell of a journey, but I'm grateful for it," Williams said.