There are millions of football fans who love to spend their Sundays relaxing on the couch watching Nate Burleson on The NFL Today. But Burleson himself is not exactly a passive observer when his own TV is on. Instead, at home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the 40-year-old Emmy Award-winning broadcaster and new co-host of CBS’s morning show treats TV viewing as an exercise in the study of craft. “I either watch on mute,” he says, “so I can see how people interact with each other, what they are doing with their eyes and hands, or I turn the volume all the way up and I close my eyes and see if I can understand what they are describing.”
Other times, he will pace around the room mumbling to himself, repeating lines and reading and writing, then rewriting, scripts. “People think you just wake up and start talking on air,” he says. “No, no, no, no! Talking on TV begins two steps away from the end zone. The rest of the work is being Barry Sanders zigzagging back and forth like crazy in the backfield.”
Unlike many of his peers who’ve traded their helmets and locker rooms for headsets and broadcast booths, Burleson doesn’t get by on name recognition. He was accomplished, but not a superstar. He played for 11 years as a wide receiver in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, and Detroit Lions, putting together a respectable highlight reel yet never earning a slot in the Pro Bowl. After he retired in 2014, however, Burleson’s career took off: He began his TV journey by doing color commentary for Lions preseason games. Since the premiere of Good Morning Football in 2016, Burleson has co-hosted the year-round show. In 2017 he joined CBS as a studio analyst for The NFL Today. In 2019 he branched out into entertainment news, becoming a correspondent for Extra until this past summer. In addition, he hosts a podcast with Uninterrupted, does voiceover work with Draft Kings, produces art, poetry, and music—rapping under the stage name New Balance with the Seattle-based hip-hop group Wizdom. He’s opened restaurants and launched a clothing label and a jewelry line.
While his multi-multi-hyphenate status may make Burleson seem like a jack of all trades, he was recently recognized for his mastery of one in particular. This past June, he won two Emmys: Outstanding Sports Personality/Studio Analyst and Outstanding Playoff Coverage for his work as a color commentator on Nickelodeon’s NFC wild-card game. And there are more exciting roles that lie ahead for Burleson. As part of a new multi-platform agreement across CBS News, CBS Sports, and ViacomCBS’s Nickelodeon, this month he’s joining CBS’s morning show as co-host with Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil.
Unlike many former athletes, broadcasting is not a coda to Burleson’s career. For him, football was a preamble to his calling. At first, after retiring, “I didn’t want to admit I missed the game so much, that I liked when people told me how great I was,” Burleson says. “When people talk to me about what I’m doing on TV, it just validates the hard work.”
Without being boastful, you’re able to speak highly of your accomplishments and ability. Have you always been a confident guy?
NB: I don’t know if I was extremely confident. I was the third of four boys. I kind of found myself sandwiched in the middle, not necessarily struggling with confidence, but struggling to be seen. I would draw and be really into music and art and stage—because I wanted the attention. My oldest brother, Kevin, was the uber-athletic one— the hooper. He was the first person that showed me you can fall in love with the sport. I tell people this all the time: If I loved football as much as Kevin loved basketball, I would be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there’s no question about it.
Did your father, who was a star defensive back at the University of Washington and then played professionally in the CFL and USFL, encourage you to pursue pro football?
NB: You know, it’s funny: My dad wasn’t one of those fathers that walked around constantly talking about his career. I would meet his old teammates at sporting events, and they’d say, “Your dad was a hell of a football player.” I became really curious: How good was he? I remember this one day, going and searching in boxes [where] I knew that he kept his old memorabilia. It was like a treasure chest to me. All this University of Washington Huskies stuff—old school, from the ’70s—USFL L.A. Express stuff, Calgary Stampede stuff. I’m putting it on like I’m getting ready for Halloween. I got the wristbands, the jersey, helmet‚ and I’m mixing all these different teams. Everything too big for me. I’m walking around the house and he’s like, “Where’d you find that?”
And then I found these old tapes. It was him at the University of Washington. My dad’s playing safety. This running back catches a ball out of the backfield, and my dad hits him right on the sideline, and the guy slides damn near to the eighth lane—the football field was surrounded by the track. And the announcer said, “Al Burleson is all over the field today.” That left an imprint on me. I never forgot that. And I remember saying to myself, “I want somebody to talk about me like that.” I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if it was going to be the NBA or the NFL. At one point I thought I was going to be a world-renowned artist, not just drawing and painting, but poetry and rapping. So I just knew at some point I wanted somebody to talk about me the way they talked about my dad.
It’s interesting that you were inspired by the color commentator—that was your first TV gig, working Detroit Lions games. Did you ever think it’d be your voice on TV that kids imagine hearing in their heads?
NB: No, I did not. I remember two guys specifically who worked for the Lions—Galen Gordon and Mo Kelly. They said, “You have a gift for gab. And if you really work on that, you can be on TV for decades.”
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