Playing for keeps
The Australian Women's Weekly|February 2020
Footballer Mat Rogers has triumphed over loss and heartbreak. When he returns to TV for Australian Survivor, he tells Tiffany Dunk, he’ll be doing it for the most important people in his life: his family.
Tiffany Dunk

Back in 2000 there was a favoured tradition in the Rogers family home. Once a week, Mat would visit his parents’ house in Sydney’s Cronulla where his mum, Carol, would have made a roast and his rugby legend dad, Steve, was already sitting in front of the TV waiting for the latest episode of Survivor to start. The US series had just launched, and like many families around the globe, the entire Rogers clan was avidly tuning in for the action. “It was the original reality show that transfixed the world really, and we had Survivor night every week,” Mat – who is about to hit screens for the second time in an Australian All Stars season of the program – tells The Weekly.

“It was a fun thing to share with Mum and Dad because they loved it. I remember being blown away by how hopeless some of the Americans were in the outdoors. I was like, ‘Man, these guys are hopeless – let me at it!’ And then the opportunity came around.”

That first opportunity came in 2018 when Mat’s agent asked if he’d be keen to take part in the Australian show’s third season on Ten: Champions vs. Contenders. It was a firm yes.

Having played both rugby league and union at the highest level, Mat’s athletic prowess served him well during the gruelling game. It also won him a new legion of fans too young to have watched the glorious career he’d carved out on the sporting field.

“I met so many kids and they were like, ‘You’re from Survivor,” Mat, 43 chuckles. “They’d be with their dad and he’d be like, ‘You know he played for Australia.’ They were like, ‘What? I don’t care about that – he was on Survivor!’” Once again, the TV event bonded the Rogers family. But sadly two of its most important members were missing – Carol and Steve. Back when US Survivor debuted, Carol had been battling cancer. After some time in remission, in 2001 the cancer returned with a vengeance. It was, says Mat, “like Armageddon – she never had a chance”.

Her death, just weeks after that diagnosis, “was horrific. There’s no other way to put it really,” he recalls. “Mum was the anchor of the ship, she held everything together and Dad went off the rails. Plus my brother (Don) and Dad had a pretty tumultuous relationship over the years. Without Mum being there, a wedge was driven between the two of them and my brother lost his mind there for a while. It was pretty tough. Dad just never recovered and went into a depression and unfortunately he succumbed to that five years later, which was pretty tough to deal with.”

Steve was just 51 when he died after his long mental health battle, leaving notes for his three children – Mat, Don and Melanie. Mat was the one who formally identified his father’s body.

He didn’t cope well in the aftermath, he has admitted. “But I think we all learned from it, or I hope we did,” he says now.

“The hardest things you go through can be the best lessons. It can make you aware or make you vulnerable. I don’t want to be a victim and neither does my wife. We’ve both been through some stuff in life where you could go, ‘Woe is me’. I don’t want to be a stat that people look at and go, ‘that’s the guy you don’t want to be like’. Or, ‘that’s what you don’t want to do’. I want to set a good example.

“One of the things I tell my kids all the time is that, if you’re not prepared to hurt, you’re never going to learn.”

Only two of those kids – his eldest Jack, 23, and Skyla, 20, from his first marriage to Michelle Rogers – met their paternal grandparents.

“Jack still remembers Mum a little bit,” Mat says. “They used to bake bread together – he remembers the smell of the bread and that she’d sit him on the tabletop.”

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