Train hard. Play hard. Party hard.
That was, and maybe still is, the environment inside plenty of high-performance sports bubbles. It gets people in trouble. It leads to cover-ups and, inevitability, double standards. When the only goal is winning, those who know how to win become a protected species.
Until it all falls apart.
Retired NRL great and dual international Sonny Bill Williams can talk about every facet of such a life. At 23, he was already a premiership-winning rugby league player, had represented his country and become the sport’s most wanted man – wanted by clubs, fans, the paparazzi, and wanted in a way others might crave.
His talent, money, fame, and celebrity lifestyle should have given him everything he needed. But for each of the days he spent in rugby league’s limelight, and each of the headlines he earned as a hard man in a hard sport, he spent the nights staring at the ceiling in a deep depression.
He felt the walls of his chest closing in. He kept looking for a release valve. He could do nothing wrong on the field but was making plenty of wrong decisions off it.
In one weekend, he could be both front and back page news.
In the end, he ran. He ran from his club, the Canterbury Bulldogs, and he ran from the game of NRL. He ran to France to try his hand at rugby union, a kind of “new beginning”.
In the process, he was handed rugby league’s biggest-ever fine. For breaking his contract, the settlement cost him over a million dollars, money he didn’t have. Footballer, boxer and friend Anthony Mundine got together with some of his mates to find the money while Williams finally confronted what he was running from – the man in the mirror.
“Had many mistakes, had many great heights, but I feel like the beauty of my story is that I’m a work in progress,” Williams told The Ticket.
On the journey, he has won rugby league premierships, rugby union World Cups, a New Zealand national boxing title and he became an Olympian in rugby sevens.
At 14, he left his family in New Zealand after signing a contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs. At the time, all he wanted to do was buy a decent house for his mum.
“You know, it’s crazy. I look back at that now and I have mad empathy for that young man that’s done that, but I was driven, and I was driven from the thought of buying mum that house with wallpaper.
Success and struggles
Success was immediate: a first-grade debut at 18, a premiership, national representation and voted one of the world’s top players, all in a single season. But by 21 he was being told by doctors he might never play again because of the number of severe injuries he had suffered, such was the intensity with which he played the game.
Sheer strength of mind saw him play at the highest level of sport for another 17 years.
Early on, Williams became acutely aware that his excessive lifestyle was leaving him empty inside.
“There was a time in my life I didn’t, I didn’t drink at all, until I actually made first grade, believe it or not.
“I wasn’t dealt with or given the traits to be strong about what I believed in or who I was. I would just follow the leader. The boys are drinking, I’m going to drink, I was happy-go-lucky.
“Then came the struggles with partying, alcohol and drug abuse, you know, the womanising stuff, treating women how they shouldn’t be treated.
“I still wasn’t saying no, [but] I got to a place where I started to figure out that these things were detrimental to me.
“I was at a stage where everything was just all-encompassing. I had to go.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing. I want to be better, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to turn.
“I just took off because I was really scared of what might become of me.
Every athlete admits that transitioning to life after sport is one of the most difficult challenges they will face. Williams credits his manager, Khoder Nasser, for always pushing him beyond his comfort zone to continue his growth as a person.
Williams is recognised as one of the quiet guys in sport. He’d prefer to leave the writing and talking to others, yet he is now a commentator on Channel Nine and has just released his biography, You Can’t Stop The Sun From Shining.
He’s also a mentor, another role he might have shied away from previously, helping the next generation of athletes navigate their own journeys.
“What people need to understand firstly is that these young men and young women, they’re going to make mistakes.
“Just because they’re at the top of their game, they don’t have it all worked out.
“If they stuff up, it’s not only going to affect them, as I know from experience, it’s going to affect your mum, your grandma, your sisters, your brother, your community.
“It’s going to bring embarrassment to all of them, that’s where it hurts the most.”
Fleeing to France
In 2008, without telling anybody at the NRL club he was contracted to, Williams fled to France, accepting an offer to convert to rugby union. That was only half the story. For Williams, the circle was completed when he also converted to Islam.
“The Islamic saying is, with hardship comes ease. When I think about that time, that’s what I think about. When I first went there [to France] I was waking up with migraines. This is a 23-year-old, it shows how much stress I must have been under, albeit my own doing.
“I think about those times and I think I was a young man who didn’t know what mental health struggles were. A young man who felt like he was trapped. He felt like he was doing the right thing but didn’t know how to go about it.
“Being in France and Europe for those two years was so vital to the growth in me. Essentially, I still had to face those demons that were facing me in the mirror. Islam has given me the antidote, or the medicine, to heal the wound.”
Rugby union success followed. He played in two World Cup-winning All Blacks teams before changing his game completely to become an Olympian in rugby sevens. Boxing beckoned. Then a final stint back where it all began, in rugby league.
He has also tapped into an inner streak he says he gets from his mum — activism.
“We’re in a space where we are so desensitised, there are so many inhumane acts around the world where a lot of people just seem not to care, but I always try to be in that place.”
There are no destinations for Sonny Bill Williams, just the constant effort to be better.
There’s more to come, no doubt, but he’s already packed a lot into his 37 years.