Mat Rogers, 44, is a former dual-code international who represented Australia in both rugby league and union. Currently appearing on Australian Survivor: All Stars, he’s the father of four kids: Jack (23), Skyla (20), Max (13), and Phoenix (12).
My nickname was Rat, so you can imagine as a youngster I was pretty wild. I didn’t get that nickname because I’m an altar boy.
But I was 20 when I became a dad for the first time. Suddenly you’ve got to pull it together. Now I think having kids young was the best thing that happened to me. It settled me down and made me focus. And that focus probably gave me a career that lasted as long as it did, because it forced me to think more about other people than myself.
The hardest challenge for me as a father was that I lost my own dad when my kids were pretty young [Steve Rogers died in 2006]. So I didn’t have him to bounce things off, and it was hard. It was hard. I made a lot of mistakes, no doubt. But you live and learn. My dad used to shake his head and say, ‘I don’t know how you can do it.’ But to be honest, you do it because you need to do it.
What was my dad like when I was kid? He was away a lot. Back in those days, rugby players didn’t just play, they worked as well – you couldn’t afford not to work. So to be honest, I didn’t see a lot of my dad. He was always out and doing stuff. He was certainly my hero and he always gave me a lot of love and respect. But I didn’t get a lot of hands-on dad time. Although dad was a superstar in sport [Steve Rogers was an international centre, Dally M player of the year and NRL Hall of Famer] I can count on my hands how many times he actually played footie with me as a kid
But he always gave me football advice. Physically I was little and the kids I played against were a lot bigger than me. I remember dad saying to me when I was young, “You’ll never be the strongest and you’ll probably never be the fastest. But you can be the fittest.”
That made me realise that you can work hard and achieve just as much as the next guy. And probably a lot more.
As a dad myself, I spend a lot of time with my kids. I try to be there for them. But I sometimes wonder if that’s the right thing to do. When I was a kid the responsibility was on me to do certain things. It forced me to grow up.
I remember, for example, when I was a 14-year old, I made the under-15 Queensland side and they trained in Brisbane. I went to boarding school – I had no way to get there. But dad was just like, “Well, do you want to play for Queensland? Work it out.” So I’d have to get myself on a bus to go up to Brisbane, then take a couple of trains… I wouldn’t get home till 9:30pm. My son is nearly 14 now and, jeez, I’d be terrified to have him doing that now. I’d be just like, “Yeah, jump in the car, I’ll take you
Sometimes I do think: “Am I spoon-feeding my kids too much?’ And I’m really frightened of that. It’s like the old adage: the caterpillar turns into a butterfly, but if you cut it out of the cocoon, its wings aren’t formed, and the colours are not there. But if you let it form and fill out inside of the cocoon it’s going to be properly developed. That was me. I had to fight my way out of the cocoon. Nothing was handed to me.
I don’t have one exact moment when I realised that my son Max had autism. But I do remember, most days, he used to come into our room and toddle past our bed and I’d ask him to give me a kiss. Then he suddenly stopped doing it. I just thought, “Well, what’s going on here?” It was like overnight, that connection was gone. It was sort of puzzling to say the least. He just started looking straight through you and it was just… sad. I remember saying to Chloe, “There’s something going on.”
Eventually, her father pushed us. He said, “You got to get some tests done, because something wrong.” And I’m forever grateful for that, because without it who knows what would have happened. We could’ve left it a couple of years and not got the help that Max needed. Potentially things could’ve been very different.
When you get that diagnosis it’s like, “Holy crap!” I remember how frantic and twisted I was over the whole situation. I was like, what good could possibly come of this situation? But what I’d encourage anybody in that situation to do is to just try and stay optimistic. There’s hope. It’s not the end of the world. What we thought was the worst thing ever, actually turned out to be one of the best things in our life. It changed us for the better, I truly believe that.
It was a gradual thing. Just seeing Max’s development and watching him flourish and make little milestones. Watching him do stuff that we never thought that he would be able to do. Then, you couple that with the fact that my wife started a charity to help other families with autistic children. It’s really made it special.
And Max has developed so much. He’s in high school now and he’s doing great. In the end we’ve got the most amazing little boy who’s just 24/7 entertainment and everybody loves him. So it makes life good.
What I’d say to any father who find themselves in this situation is “Just stay strong”. It’s hard for everyone in the family. Stay close to each, vent to your family and do whatever you can to give your son or your daughter the best life they can have.
What did I miss most about being away from my family on Survivor? Just the little things: the hugs and the kisses and the contact. I just love my kids being around. I even hate it when my kids go on sleepovers simply because I like them being in the room next door to me. I don’t care if they have five people sleep over if that means they’re still here. I just love being around my kids.
I suppose that I’m a pretty hands-on dad. I’m around. I’m at their footy. I’m at their soccer. I’m at their swimming carnival. I’m at the concerts. So it’s really hard when you’re can’t be there.