Nate Burleson’s life these days is one of controlled chaos from the moment his 4:45 a.m. alarm goes off.
Burleson is a co-host of the newly launched and re-imagined “CBS Mornings,” his biggest foray yet into the national spotlight in a realm other than sports. That high-profile, high-pressure job began Tuesday with his first show at their Times Square studio alongside fellow hosts Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil.
Burleson will remain as a studio analyst on CBS’s “NFL Today” as well as contributing to NFL Network and providing occasional drop-ins on Nickelodeon, where he earned universal plaudits for his work on January’s broadcast of the Bears-Saints playoff game aimed for kids. Burleson prepared for that one by spending two days in his hotel room watching nothing but the Nickelodeon shows he loved as a kid, which involved a lot of goo and slime.
Oh, and Burleson vows to squeeze in quality family time with his wife, Atoya, and three children, Nathaniel (age 17), Nehemiah (15) and Mia (11) at their northern New Jersey home.
What’s amazing is that Burleson navigates that hectic and highly competitive life while exuding a relaxed likability in front of the camera that is one of his calling cards. He says his secret weapon is his football career, which took him from Seattle’s O’Dea High School into an 11-year NFL stint as a wide receiver with the Vikings, Seahawks and Lions.
“This calm under pressure is what you need to have playing football,” Burleson said in a phone interview last week. “So when it’s 70,000 people and you’re on the road, coaches are yelling, chaos is happening, you’re down by five, you need a touchdown, the opposing team fans are yelling at you and cursing, talking about your mama, you still have to listen to the play, go out there, execute, score touchdowns and win the game.
“I’ve never forgot that feeling. Sometimes it seems like the whole house is on fire. And somebody needs to just steady the chaos. And that’s where that calm comes from. It suits me well, because it puts me in a position where I’m always listening. Even if I have something that I want to say. I can listen and respond to what is happening in real time.”
In real time, Burleson’s career is blowing up, in a manner reminiscent of one of his mentors, Michael Strahan. Strahan also segued from X’s and O’s analysis into the entertainment world and morning news show maelstrom; Strahan recently offered to give Burleson some tips on making that transition. Burleson hosted “Good Morning Football” on the NFL Network for five years and was a correspondent on “Extra,” but this is new territory.
“He’s like: ‘We’ve gotta hop on the phone. I want to tell you about these waters that you’re going to dive into. Morning news is a lot different than morning sports.’ ”
But whereas Strahan had a Super Bowl ring and Hall of Fame jacket to provide instant recognition, Burleson has neither. He did catch 457 passes for 5,630 yards and 39 touchdowns in a solid career, and he still holds the Seahawks’ career record for career and season punt-return yardage. Burleson also is the only player in NFL history with three punt returns of 90 or more yards.
But perhaps the most enduring moment of his Seattle career from 2006-09 came when Maurice Kelly, the Seahawks’ vice president of player engagement, threw a few casual but vital words his way. Burleson heard them reinforced later from Galen Duncan, who had a similar position with the Lions.
They both told Burleson that he would make a bigger impact outside the game than he would in it. And more money, too.
“I kind of had a perplexed look,” he recalled.
But those words turned out to be prophetic. Burleson launched businesses, opened restaurants, started a clothing line, joined the music industry and wrote poetry. And toward the end of his career, he attended the NFL’s Broadcast Boot Camp, designed to prepare players for a media career.
The camp reinforced to Burleson that he had potential in front of the camera. And also that he had a long way to go to achieve it.
“I thought it was going to be this cupcake camp where I’d see some guys I played with and against, and we’ll all laugh and joke and skate through a few days,” he said. “And it wasn’t that. It was like 10-, 12-hour days. A lot of mock shows and exercises.
“At the end of it, I was a little bit of a standout. But more importantly, I walked away realizing I didn’t know much about the art and craft of being on TV.”
Burleson began learning those lessons working on local television in Detroit, where he earned a regional Emmy that really opened his eyes to where TV could take him.
“I went: ‘Whoa, wait a minute. I might not be able to win a Lombardi, but they’re handing out Emmys? I might have to go after some different type hardware.’ ”
The NFL Network eventually hired Burleson as a studio analyst, then gave him its morning-show gig, which he has described as “ ‘Good Morning Football’ meets ‘Good Morning America.’ ” That expanded into a coveted spot on “NFL Today,” where Burleson is considered the leading candidate to one day replace James Brown as host. From 2019-21, Burleson had a gig as an entertainment correspondent for “Extra,” conducting a number of high-profile celebrity interviews.
This year, Burleson indeed earned that different type of hardware when he won his first Sports Emmy for Outstanding Studio Analyst. And when he excelled as a fill-in host on the “CBS Morning Show” in June when Dokoupil went on paternity leave, they offered him the full-time gig.
“I think I showed that I can exist in multiple spaces at one time,” Burleson said. “I was doing a hard-core NFL morning show on ‘Good Morning Football.’ I was talking to politicians, celebrities and influencers on ‘Extra.’ And then in the same season, I can hold down, with my broadcast team, a kids-centric NFL broadcast that’s truly the first of its kind.”
Through it all, Burleson holds firm to his Seattle roots, where his family forged a huge sports legacy. Nate’s father, Al, played defensive back for the Huskies (his 90-yard interception return in the ’75 Apple Cup is legendary) and in the CFL and USFL. Brother Al Jr. also played for the Huskies. Another brother, Kevin, played in the NBA and now coaches for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The youngest Burleson brother, Lyndale, played basketball at Nevada (Nate’s alma mater). Nate’s parents, Al and Valerie, still live in Seattle.
“I have the Space Needle tattooed on my body,” he said. “That tells you right there how much I love the 206.”
Nate fondly remembers the backyard brawls with his brothers that he feels toughened him up. And his love of the camera that now takes him to the heart of the morning television wars began here as well. Burleson dreamed of hosting an Arsenio Hall-type talk show on NFL Network.
“If I can find some of the footage, maybe we’ll leak it on ‘CBS Mornings,’ ” he said with a laugh. “There’s times where I’m controlling the room. You would think I was a young broadcaster in the making. We’d do these talent shows, and I felt so at home, having the stage to myself. So maybe my mom and dad saw this coming.”