Voices

Nate Burleson Is Open

Kyle Koster
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Nate Burleson is soaring in resplendent style like a superhero in the comics he grew up loving. Not yet 40 years-old, the former NFL wideout has leapt into his second act as an entertainer without losing a step. He’s now in wide-open space with nothing between himself and whichever end zone he chooses. He’s a man with options fueled by the challenge of managing responsibilities and honing a relatively newfound passion of multitasking.

“I was always fascinated by juggling,” he says. “And now I do that with my jobs while giving ultimate energy and effort to each one. There's something invigorating about that.”

Five days a week he wakes up at an unholy hour to rise and shine on Good Morning Football, NFL Network’s tone-setting show which has become appointment television in football locker rooms and front offices. On Sundays, he ditches the casual dress code for his gameday best as a member of CBS’ The NFL Today, where his role has grown through the years. Last December, in fact, he was tapped with hosting when James Brown was sidelined by COVID protocols at the 11th hour.

Burleson is not just running every route in the television tree. He’s creating his own playbook. If this were football he’d be approaching the end of his rookie deal with a bevy of suitors willing to put him at the center of their offensive schemes. A prospect tabbed with having tremendous upside potential who appears destined to maximize it. 

Combining sports and pop culture assets has become a cottage industry. Yet it can be argued that few possess as high a ceiling as the one Burleson has his sights on. Rare is the ability to dive into X’s and O’s in one breath and interview Al Pacino or Lady Gaga or Michelle Obama in the next — which he did a few months ago in his role as a correspondent for Extra.

“I needed a replacement for football because there was a void,” says Burleson, who still cannot believe Pacino knew his name. “Something to make me feel like a rock star. I needed that feeling of shaking a defender, grabbing the ball, and breaking a tackle. That feeling of looking into the crowd of 70,000 people with the grown men crying and the women winking at you.

“TV was like a substitute. But then I started wondering what I was doing it for. Am I doing it for selfish reasons? Because I'm too old to be selfish. Or am I doing it because this is a great way to transition out of the game and build something special? That's where I am at right now. I'm building something special.”

Burleson may have retired the pads but a wide receiver cannot change his confidence. It oozes from him but is not overwhelming. He’s carefully considered yet nimble, adroitly performing mental inventory regarding his professional and personal motivations. There’s no spiking the football. One gets the sense he’s more than content to hand it back to the ref because he’s set his goals higher than the culmination of one drive, one game, or one gig. 

“The moment you get complacent, you stop learning,” he muses.

Success has come rapidly. The tail end of last football season featured two breakout performances: that spot start at the center of CBS’ desk and a groundbreaking, family-friendly broadcast on Nickelodeon which was roundly trumpeted as a success and the harbinger of things to come

As a ubiquitous front-facing talent, criticism comes with the job. So does praise. One presents a more challenging process. 

“Criticism is easy,” he explains. “I'm a football player. That comes with the territory. I've always been coached. With praise, there's ego involved. I had to decide: do I want to be really good at TV or do I want to be on TV because it feeds my ego?”

Growing up in a Christian home, spiritual warfare was a battle to be monitored. Burleson needs to know he’s doing all this for the right reasons. And while it’s a good problem to garner positive reviews and increase one’s demand, there’s a calculus to be considered. Winning the day’s battle does not mean the next one will come easy. Eyes remain fixed on the prize but they are laser-focused on why he wants that prize.

“I was once told there are two types of wolves that live inside of you. One that's driven by the flesh and one that's driven by the spirit. Spirit-driven life is when you're doing it for reasons other than yourself. The flesh? The flesh wants all the praise and adulation. And no matter how humble someone may be, once they get praise, it's a good feeling. When someone says I can be the next Michael Strahan or host any show, I have to tell myself two things. One, that I'm not as great as people say that I am. And two, there's so much more that I have to learn.”

Burleson describes the fluid process of finding his voice with some impressionistic trial-and-error at the outset. He found himself emulating analysts he thought were cool. On any given day, that was affecting Michael Irvin’s raspy voice or dramatic flair. On the next it would be a gold-chain-adorned soliloquy on looking and playing good — ripped from the Book of Prime Time. Eventually, Burleson realized the not-so-secret sauce: The recipe that would allow him to cook was his own. 

“He is a very honest guy,” says Craig Germain, a senior coordinating producer at NFL Network who has shepherded Good Morning Football for seven years. “The more he was honest, the more he was himself, the more natural it became.”

“I tried to figure out who I am,” Burleson says of those early days in front of the camera. “I'm a goofy kid who grew up loving animation and cartoons. I love pop culture, movies and music. I need to figure out how to incorporate all of those things into the voice I have on-stage.”

Burleson’s ascension is impressive on its face and even more so when one considers the comparative cache he carried over from his playing career in an era where star power and name recognition matter more than core competency or a will to be entertaining. There were several auditions pitting him against bigger stars. Times where he’d walk in knowing that executives would love nothing more than to give the job to the splashiest name to plaster on a marquee. But Burleson trusted himself, knew he had to be himself. And the rest has been quick and high-yield history. 

“I think being a wide receiver has helped me in two ways,” he reflects. “One, when the stage is mine, I know how to handle it. I had my moments where I was the No. 1 receiver. Out of the 11 years, I had a couple. I know what it's like to have the lights on me. I got this, everybody chill. Give me the ball. That's like the producer saying ‘Nate you've got five minutes, rock it.’ That’s Batman.

“When Batman talks, you'll listen. He'll talk in a Bruce Wayne voice and you'll be like, ‘What's that, Bruce?’ But when he hits you with the growl that it's time to save the city, you feel it. Your heart is racing, you get goosebumps. Whatever he said, you're ready to rock. I have conviction because I'm passionate. Batman's passionate about Gotham. I'm passionate about football. If I'm talking to J. Lo about a new perfume, I'm passionate about the perfume.”

Burleson has active eyes when he speaks. They dance with an authentic spark. There’s an earnestness and curiosity in them that makes you believe they spent hours pouring through old lyrics to show A-list recording artists that he’d done the homework. That makes you believe he spent time before sunrise diving into a certain wideout’s ability to beat press coverage. That makes you believe that he’s perfectly content being a complementary presence because he wants to elevate everyone’s play.

“Playing next to Calvin Johnson and Randy Moss early on in my career, I know what it's like to be Robin,” he offers. “And I'd be mad. You know I'm looking at Batman with all of these gadgets. He has the armor with the abs and the little grapple thing. I'm looking at Calvin and thinking I don't have the smoke bomb. I don't have the powerpunch. I don't have that. I have this little Ninja star and tight-ass Spandex. I'm Robin. But guess what, I was a good-ass Robin. A sidekick.”

In conversation, he drifts back to comics and self-reflection and centeredness. One gets the sense that he’s comfortable in his own skin but measured in how he processes accolades. As if there’s a catch. An aftertaste that will dull the hunger. 

“Every superhero has a weakness,” he observes. “That's the way that it's written. It shows the duality of every person we praise. You look at Superman and you think this dude has it all. He can jump over the tallest buildings. He's faster than a speeding bullet. This dude is the truth. But he can't handle Kryptonite so what we all have to do is identify our Kryptonite. Is it something that drives us? Is it a physical thing? Is it something that we seek? What is it?

“I love attention and I love praise so my Kryptonite might be my ego being too big. If that's the case, I have to be constantly willing to deflate it when it balloons.”

All of this to say that there have been the typical bumps in the road. He recalls a learning lesson from the nascent NFL Network days. After covering a game in Jacksonville he had a late night and missed an early flight. He didn’t think much of it until he found himself in a green room with a group of former players-turned-television talent — one of whom delivered a lesson.

“Deion Sanders says, ‘Close the door, Nate, and come here.’ He’d heard about the missed flight and I started rattling off excuses. I was running on a few hours of sleep. It was a late game. He said, ‘I don’t want to hear about the excuses. Tighten up.’”

Sanders explained that if he’d heard about it, then the producers had heard about it too. The same for the executives. The same for those who cut the checks. 

“He said, ‘I don’t want this to happen again,’” Burleson recalls. “He knew I could flush my opportunity down the drain and I had to keep my eyes open and mouth shut. To listen more than I talked. I dapped him up and it was the last time I ever missed a flight.”

“Nate is not putting on an act,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus tells The Big Lead. “What you see on television is the same Nate that you see off of television. He has a lot of perspective on life. His family is incredibly important to him. His role as a father and a husband is important to him. I think the fact that he’s so well-rounded and in tune with what’s going on in the world gives him unusual range.”

McManus remembers Burleson acing his audition for NFL Today and realizing in short order that the former pass-catcher was a natural. That spending time with him felt like time well spent.

"He’s multifaceted. He has a good sense of humor and he’s hip. He’s also likable, which is something you can’t teach on television."

The life of an NFL player involves 16 three-hour bursts of public performance. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the job is done out of public view. So too is the job of a television personality. Some turn on the charm when the red light goes on. Others are engaged in the clubhouse. 

Several sources paint Burleson as the latter. He has a casual, collected tone with co-workers no matter where they are on the depth chart — something observed during a visit to a Good Morning Football taping in 2020. Seven years into his second act, he’s emerged as a veteran locker room presence. 

“He’s a good teammate,” McManus says. “He gets along well with the other analysts and he’s a lot of fun to be around.”

Said Germain: “He is always concerning himself with the perspective of his co-hosts and his producers. He’s always thinking about the editors. He’s always comfortable giving up air time, ideas to others.

“He is breathtaking at receiving feedback. He’s always having a conversation. The first thing about Nate is that he treats everyone the same, top to bottom. Titles don’t matter. He treats everyone like a human being. He wants to hear what you’re saying. He asks for feedback even when you give him feedback. He’s a collaborator.”

More than one coworker used the same imagery in describing Burleson: that he’s not talking at you or to you — he’s talking with you. Another says he speaks in layers of perspectives and uses conversation to build upon his world, like an expert Fortnite player. 

It’s exactly what he’s going for.

“I don't want someone to say, ‘Man I'd pay to hear Nate give a TED Talk,’” Burleson explains. “That's not a compliment to me. I'd rather have someone say they hope they can meet me and have a beer. Or to meet for a meal. That is the most personal you can get with someone.” 

A red-hot sports media personality begs the question: what’s next? For Burleson, it’s nearly impossible to answer. He’ll have decisions to make. That juggling act may only get more harder.

"I've often said Nate is a five-tool player, and frankly there are not many out there," says Mark Lepselter, Burleson's longtime broadcasting agent. "For us, the long-term perspective is paramount, there is no shortage of opportunities, so deciphering which endeavors will enhance Nate's portfolio, is key."

It’s that resonant connectivity that has opened doors to this point and will open even larger ones in the future. 

Next week he will begin a two-week stretch as a guest/host on CBS This Morning, where yesterday he helped reveal the network’s Week 1 NFL schedule. He is also in ongoing conversations with Nickelodeon about expanding that relationship.

No one really knows what the future holds, including Burleson himself. What he does know is that he’ll keep doing what’s brought him here. Being true to his inner caped crusader, whose superpower may be emotional intelligence and connecting with others, sealed with a civic-minded vow:

“I’ll give it everything I have as long as there’s someone on the other side of the camera watching.”

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