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Screen Gem – Nate Burleson

FORMER O’DEA STAR AND NFL RECEIVER RISES TO THE TOP OF HIS NEW PROFESSION

By Danny O’Neil April 13, 2023

Nate Burleson has gone from pro football to co-hosting CBS Mornings.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Nate Burleson was right. It is awfully early.

Just after 5 a.m., in fact, and while the lights in Times Square remain on that’s because the lights in Times Square never turn off and as I approach the Broadway address for the studio where we’re meeting, a man in a suit steps forward.

“Who are you here for?” he asks me.

Nate Burleson. He’s on CBS.

The man in a suit nods, walks to the entrance and pulls a keycard from his pocket to unlock the door. He holds it open, points to the escalator a few steps inside and tells me there’s a security desk at the top. One-quarter of the way up on the escalator, I hear shouting back at the door. Two women have pushed their way past the man in a suit.

He sighs as they scurry toward the escalator, proclaiming their immediate need to find a bathroom. This early morning is actually their late night, and it turns out New York is, in fact, the city that never sleeps no matter how tipsy its inhabitants get. I now understand why there’s a security desk at the top of the escalator.

I meet Burleson in the makeup room. I haven’t seen him since he played wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. Wait. That’s not quite right. I’ve seen him an awful lot since then, but always on television. First, it was the NFL Network. Then it was on CBS’s Sunday pregame show, NFL Today, where he sat alongside Super Bowl winning coaches and Hall of Fame players. For the past year, he’s been part of CBS Mornings. Now he’s not a former football player talking shop, but a full-fledged morning show cohost working with Gayle King and Tony Dakoupil on the network’s flagship for daytime programming.

“I want to talk about politics and world news,” Burleson tells me. “Social issues that are going on. I want to talk about all these things. I write poetry in my free time.”

It’s a natural progression for a guy who is as polished and composed as any athlete I’ve ever come across in 20 years of covering pro sports. In fact, I knew about Nate Burleson before I actually knew Nate Burleson. He is part of the unofficial first family of Seattle sports. His father, Al Sr., played defensive back at the University of Washington and his 93-yard interception return against Washington State in the 1975 Apple Cup is one of the most famous plays in school history. Al married his high-school sweetheart and they raised four sons right here in Seattle.

Al Jr. played football at Washington while brothers Kevin and Lyndale played college hoops. Kevin made it to the NBA. Nate is the third youngest, a ’99 graduate of O’Dea High School who went to the University of Nevada in Reno after Rick Neuheisel — who had just taken over as Washington coach — declined to offer him a scholarship.

Nate Burleson played his way to a pro future and was drafted by Minnesota in the third round of the 2003 draft, a year that no Husky player was selected. Nate played three years with the Vikings before signing with Seattle in 2006. He was a Seahawk for four seasons, catching as many as 63 passes in one year. He totaled 19 touchdowns in his Seattle tenure.

He also smelled really good. I covered the team for The Seattle Times then, and he showed me the spray bottle of Febreze that he kept in his locker, spritzing his pads after practice to keep them from smelling too funky. Even in a room full of athletically gifted extroverts, Burleson stood out.

“Nate is such a rock star,” says Lofa Tatupu, Burleson’s teammate with the Seahawks. “Everyone knew in the locker room he was destined for greatness post ball. Amazing energy!”

Burleson is one of those people who has always been comfortable talking to a crowd. He studied speech communication in college, and on those occasions he addressed his teammates before NFL games, he could move men to tears. Burleson wasn’t trying to do that. It just sort of happened.

But to look at his television career as inevitable is to miss the more important part of Burleson’s story. It took initiative, plenty of humility and a willingness to look in the mirror six years ago and decide that he wasn’t going to kick back even though he had every reason to relax.

“Life was good,” he says. “Money was OK. Family was taken care of.”

Burleson left Seattle in 2010, signing as a free agent with Detroit where he played four seasons. After his playing career ended in 2014, he was living in Arizona where his wife is from, raising their three children. He’d been retired from football for two years, but he flew to Los Angeles every week during the football season for a part-time role talking football on TV.

Nate Burleson spent four years with the Seattle Seahawks.

Photo by Larry Maurer/Getty Images

He heard that the NFL Network was going to start a new morning show. It would be based out of New York, and he decided that was too far, too different. He’s a West Coast guy whose roots run deep here in the Northwest. Besides, it was early.

“I don’t want to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning,” Burleson remembers telling his wife. “I’m done, like, stressing myself out.”

But something kept gnawing at him not about the opportunity, but the reason he was turning it down.

“It happened in one instant,” he said. “I walked into a bathroom when my mom and my wife were in the kitchen. And I’m looking in the mirror, and I’m like, ‘Man, you’re a phony. You don’t want to go to New York because it will make you uncomfortable.’ ”

This sounds like an eminently reasonable conclusion. Tackle football is an utterly brutal business. In 2006, Burleson played through a hand injury so bad he couldn’t open a can of soda. In 2008, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game. In a league where many players hope to sign a second contract, he played the entirety of three different deals. It was the equivalent of winning the lottery and there’s something to be said for enjoying the life he’d earned.

But Burleson couldn’t get over the message he’d be sending.

“You always tell your kids, ‘Be comfortable with being uncomfortable,’” he says. “You go speak at these schools and these juvenile centers, and you speak at these events, these corporate events, and you tell people that there’s beauty in discomfort. And here you are complaining about moving to a new place and waking up at an earlier time. Man, you’re weak.”

He came out of the bathroom and told his wife that he wanted to move to the East Coast where he would get up at 4 a.m. to host Good Morning Football in 2016. That was just the start, though. A foot hold. Before long he began working as a correspondent for Extra!

The job he holds at CBS is one of the most valuable in the industry. A network morning show isn’t a program so much as a cornerstone.

“I grew up loving movies, music and pop culture,” he says. “I’m entertained by that so I can talk about that easily, and I always feel like one of my biggest strengths is sitting down with people.”

That can require patience, though, which Burleson found out when he was assigned an interview of Jennifer Lopez.

“I’m excited about it,” Burleson recalls. “It’s J.Lo. Who doesn’t love J.Lo.?”

They were at a perfume store in the Bronx, which is the borough that sits above Manhattan. The interview was scheduled for 6 p.m., but it was 9 and Lopez still wasn’t there. Burleson had been up since 4 a.m., and he began thinking about how after the interview he’d have to drive home to New Jersey, go to sleep and wake up at 4 again the following morning. Lopez arrived at 9:30, graceful and apologetic. She was great. Her assistant, however, informed them that what had been an eight-minute interview needed to be compressed down to five. Burleson’s producer stepped in.

“I know we’re signed up for eight minutes,” he said. “So, can we get eight? She’s running a little late. We’ve been here all night.”

The assistant didn’t budge. “Five minutes,” she said to the producer. Then she turned to look at Burleson: “Five minutes,” she repeated.

“And this was a young girl. She’s, like, in her 20s,” Burleson said. “And I’m almost 40.”

Burleson didn’t smile. He didn’t change his facial expression. The assistant went to get Lopez.

“This is one of my first new assignments at Extra!” Burleson said. “But I’m professional. It’s kind of like understanding where you are and knowing what you signed up for.”

As Lopez approached the place where the interview would occur, Burleson flipped the switch.

“J.Lo., what’s up?” he said, “How are you doing? Oh, my goodness, do you ever age? Hey, the movie Hustlers. I see you. Are we talking Oscar? Oh, and that new music, you know I’m feeling that. Philanthropist, dancer, you do it all. Come on. Sit down. Let’s do this interview.”

Burleson is laughing as he recounts the story.

“J.Lo. is like, ‘Who are you?’” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘Oh, how are you doing? My name is Nate Burleson.’ ”

And they were off. By the fifth, maybe sixth question that PR person was waving her hands to encourage the interview to continue, mouthing things like “Keep going” and “You’ve got as much time as you need.”

“So, we talked for like 15, 20 minutes,” Burleson says. “These are moments when you have to decide what’s more important. Your ego or the job? And I signed up for that job specifically to show people that I can do much more than just talk about football.”

There is a lesson here. Something that goes beyond a single example of Burleson’s obvious charisma. It’s about energy and enthusiasm and how to bundle that together with his willingness to try something new. It is about striving even when you don’t have to. Burleson beat the odds in football. He played 11 years in a league where the average career lasts fewer than four, and when he was done, he decided that he was willing to start over in an entirely new business that was just as competitive and to apply the same level of honest, unflinching engagement that had taken him to the top of his previous gig.

“I realized that once my career was winding down and I wasn’t going to be a Hall of Famer,” he says. “I know I didn’t win a Super Bowl. Good career, but I’m not going to have the gold jacket hanging in my closet as a player. I still had that desire to win and to chase trophies, and here I am, Emmy nominated with a few sitting on the shelf, and I have to be honest, it feels good. It really does.”

It should. He took the risk of moving to New York not because he wanted to leave, but so he could pursue something new. Even in New York, his Northwest credentials remain obvious. Actually, they’re especially obvious in New York because he’s the guy who doesn’t pop open an umbrella when it rains.

“I don’t need it,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s monsooning outside, I’m walking slowly, and everybody is running and hustling up. When it rains, I don’t panic. That might be the most Seattle thing about me.”

There’s some competition in that regard. His cell phone has a 206 area code, he references the Super Sonics like they’re still in the league and he does have the Space Needle tattooed on his body. Twice.

“One is hidden like a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ photo,” Burleson said, “and the other one is pretty obvious.”

It’s on his calf, evidence that Nate Burleson didn’t leave Seattle so much as he’s showing us how far we all can go. It should. He turned 41 earlier this year, and the job he holds at CBS is one of the most valuable in the television industry. A network morning show isn’t a program so much as a cornerstone. For years, CBS has been a distant third behind Good Morning America on ABC and The Today Show on NBC. Burleson’s addition as cohost was part of a relaunch of sorts. CBS changed the name of the show and began broadcasting it from the Times Square studio. During the past 12 months, the show has gained viewership and is more competitive than ever.

“It’s the most fulfilling thing I believe I’ve ever done professionally,” Burleson says. “Even more so than football, and I LOVE football. Love it.”

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