After the Christchurch terror attacks, Sonny Bill Williams knew he had to speak out.
The 34-year-old felt the responsibility not only because of his status as an All Black – a star of New Zealand’s esteemed rugby team – but also as one of the country’s most recognized Muslims.
Over 50 people were killed in March after a gunman opened fire in two mosques in the city of Christchurch. The shooter, Australian citizen Brenton Harrison Tarrant, was motivated by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim ideology.
“I was hurting, I know New Zealanders were hurting, Muslims were hurting, so I had to step up, I had to get into that space and be vulnerable,” Williams, who recently announced he would be switching from rugby union to league having signed for the Toronto Wolfpack, told CNN Sport’s Alex Thomas.
“Sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew that I was trying to be positive and I think as New Zealanders we’ve really led the way in that space and talking about the elephant in the room.”
At the time of the attack, Williams released an emotional message paying tribute to the victims, saying he was “deeply saddened that this would happen in New Zealand.” He also visited survivors in hospital and attended a prayer meeting near Al Noor mosque where the attacks took place.
Williams converted to Islam in 2008 and says he wouldn’t have achieved as much as he has as an athlete were it not for his faith.
“My soul was yearning for something, I didn’t know what that was,” he says, reflecting on the early days of his career.
“I was young I was, I guess, insecure. All I knew was rugby and rugby league. That game actually defined who I was. If I had a good game, I felt like I was a good person. If I had a bad game, I wouldn’t want to leave the house.
“I think that’s what Islam has given me. It’s allowed me to be vulnerable enough to step into certain situations and environments and lead and thrive and put myself out there.”
Williams, a two-time Rugby World Cup winner with the All Blacks, bowed out of rugby union after this year’s competition in Japan.
One of the most successful cross-code athletes in sport, he’s played league, union and sevens at the highest level, as well winning all seven of his heavyweight boxing fights.
With his move to Toronto to play in rugby league’s 13-a-side format, Williams is thought to be the sport’s highest-paid athlete having signed a two-year deal worth $10 million.
He has regularly featured in the Muslim 500 – a list of the world’s most influential Muslims – alongside Liverpool and Egypt forward Mo Salah, Manchester United and France midfielder Paul Pogba and UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“Over time as I become more confident in the person, the man that I am, I think in today’s society we’ve been taught to be embarrassed of Islam, to be embarrassed because of a few bad apples that are out there,” said Williams.
“I’m not a politician, but I just do what I feel is right and I’m grateful and blessed that sport has allowed me to use that vehicle to push I guess a bit more positivity out there into the world.”
Williams famously gave away his Rugby World Cup winners’ medal to a fan who broke onto the pitch to hug the center, only to be tackled to the ground by a steward.
He ended his All Blacks career with a third-place finish at this year’s World Cup having scored 13 tries in 58 appearances.
He now begins preparation for the new Super League season, where Toronto Wolfpack has recently earned promotion to the league mainly comprised of English teams. Toronto’s first game is against Castleford on February 2.