Nate Burleson — NFL veteran-turned-broadcaster — does not intimidate easily. As a wide receiver and return specialist, he spent his career hurtling his six-foot-200-pound body down a football field at fearsome velocity. So if he feels any pressure about entering the rough-and-tumble morning show wars as the newest co-host of a revamped CBS morning show, he’s not letting on.
“I don’t feel pressure because I don’t pay attention to the rating,” he says.
Maybe not. But CBS News executives will certainly be keeping a close eye on the minute-by-minutes after Burleson makes his debut Tuesday opposite Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil in a new state-of-the-art studio on the ground floor of Viacom headquarters at 1515 Broadway in Times Square. And yes, third place “CBS Mornings” will be directly across the street from ABC’s top-rated “Good Morning America.” (“GMA” co-host Michael Strahan, a fellow NFL vet, called Burleson to congratulate him on the new gig.)
“We want to be the best version of ourselves,” adds Burleson. “And I truly believe if we do that, and when we hit our stride, everything else, including the ratings, will take care of itself.”
Burleson, 40, has already successfully reinvented himself in sports broadcasting. After his 11-year playing career ended in 2014, he joined the NFL Network as an analyst. By 2016, he was named as one of the hosts of the network’s “Good Morning Football.” The following year he became a studio analyst for CBS Sports’ “NFL Today,” for which he won his first Sports Emmy earlier this year. (He’ll continue to co-host “NFL Today.”) He’s been a correspondent for syndicated program “Extra,” and hosted a podcast on the ESPN vertical The Undefeated. He’s also the voice of DraftKings’ campaigns and he’s been featured on multiple tracks by rapper Wizdom under the moniker New Balance.
He reads and writes poetry; Langston Hughes is a particular favorite. And he has been known to put paint to canvas. “As a kid, I was walking around telling people I’m going to be a famous painter,” he laughs.
The third of four boys, he grew up in Seattle in an intensely sports-centric family. His father was a defensive back in the Canadian Football League. His two older brothers played college football while his young brother was in the NBA. Burleson met his wife Atoya, who co-hosts the InsideLines podcast, at the University of Nevada, where she was a track star. They have three children — Nathaniel, 17, Nehemiah, 15, and Mia, 11.
Burleson earned the job on after a successful guest stint on the program last spring. But he got King’s attention several months earlier when he interviewed Michelle Obama (for “Extra”) with his daughter Mia.
After the interview, recalls Burleson, “she shot me a text, ‘Hey this is Gayle King, just wanted to tell you, you’re doing a great job, keep up the good work. And more importantly your daughter is going to be a bigger star than you.’”
Burleson talks to WWD about his favorite painter, who he wants to interview on “CBS Mornings” and why he loves New York.
WWD: Gayle King’s alarm clock goes off at 3:22 a.m. What about yours?
Nate Burleson: My alarm has been going off at 4:45 for half a decade now. The good thing is I don’t need to change my alarm clock. I’ll be good to go. Gayle, she has her heels to pick out, her fancy dresses. And she’s like the quarterback, so she gets in a little early and gets organized. My show (ESPN’s “Good Morning Football”) was from 7 to 10 a.m., so we had an early call every morning. So waking up early, luckily for me, has become routine.
WWD: You already have a lot of jobs — any hesitancy about taking on another one?
N.B.: Yeah, full-time father, full-time husband, and also a coach during the weekdays, and on top of that I have five other businesses that I run outside of TV. Yeah, I’m busy. But over the last three years I’ve juggled a lot. Being busy isn’t foreign to me. I actually like it like that. I’m not going to complain one bit. First-world problems. And that’s one thing you’ll never hear me complain about, being blessed enough to choose between jobs.
WWD: What are you looking forward to doing on the show?
N.B.: There’s a younger generation of men and woman who are at the forefront of innovation, whether it’s in the tech space, the financial space, investors, real estate, crypto currency. I want to tell the stories of this young, hungry generation because I think they’re shining examples of how much wealth is out there.
I also love art, I’ve been writing poetry since I was a kid. I’m a storyteller by nature. I pride myself on my one-on-one interviews. A guy like Macklemore, who’s a fellow Seattle guy, I’ve known him for a couple of decades now. Maybe I call him and have him open up about his life as an artist, the struggles that he was going through before he broke through.
WWD: What got you into poetry and art?
N.B.: It just happened organically. I just felt like there were different ways to express myself besides sports. Langston Hughes was the first poet that I was introduced to. And that’s when I realized I could use poetry as a creative outlet to not only express myself emotionally but also to tell stories. And I’ve been writing ever since.
WWD: Any favorite painters?
N.B.: [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, his art and his brand exploded after he died. How often do we praise the artist after they’re gone? That’s a life lesson to me; if you have something that you’re good at, create it. Get it out there.
WWD: Yeah, when he couldn’t pay his rent in Brooklyn he gave his landlord drawings.
N.B.: Yes, see, I’m a West Coast guy, but a lot of my inspiration came from New York. I never thought in a million years that I would have relocated to the East Coast, where so much of my inspiration hailed from.
WWD: Yes, it’s a great city, even when the subways flood.
N.B.: No doubt. There’s beauty in the chaos. And that’s another thing I’m excited about with “CBS Mornings,” to show the character of New York. It’s almost like New York is a member of this show, a fourth host, or a correspondent. I’m looking forward to diving into some of these stories. A lot of this city, I have yet to uncover.
WWD: Several NFL players have gone on to successful careers in sports broadcasting, but not as many have crossed over to news.
N.B.: A lot of guys, once they get done, they want to stay in that space. I chose sports television because that’s the avenue that was available to me. But I’ve always been interested beyond the sports space. I helped launch a firm that helps athletes invest their money. I opened a restaurant. Being an active poet. I’ve never just wanted to be an athlete.
WWD: How are you approaching the job?
N.B.: NFL players or football players, the best teams coexist harmoniously. It’s not like tennis, or golf, or even the NBA where one player can carry a squad. Playing football, there are 10 other guys on the field at the same time and I have to do my job or the whole team falls apart. Now there’s times as a receiver where I’m the man; I’ll score the touchdown, everybody looks at me, the crowd goes crazy. But the majority of the time, it’s just me being a piece of the puzzle.
Also, I love criticism, I embrace it and ask for it. I remember years ago, I got done doing a show, and I got the pat on the back, good job, good job. I think sometimes producers do that to build confidence in the athlete, a little positive reinforcement. And I remember not having a good show, and I stopped the producer, “Hey it’s OK if you want to tell me I didn’t do well. It’s OK to criticize me. I want to improve at this job. So if you just tell me I did a great job every time I get off set, even when I didn’t, it’s not only hurting me, but it’s hurting the show. So challenge me. I will respond.” I think those elements create really good TV personalities.
WWD: But it is a skill, it’s not like anybody can get on TV and connect with an audience. And it takes time, right? Just ask Gayle, she spent years in local news.
N.B.: Right, finding my voice, that took some time. I’m close to a decade in this business. But I had to figure that out. Who do I want the viewer to hear? I told myself a long time ago, if you’re not waking up with passion and you don’t love it, don’t do it. So when you see me on TV with this big smile, I don’t care what [the segment] is about, it could be about school lunches, I’m going to dive into it. The night before I’m going to study, I’m going to do my work, I’m going to over-prepare. And then I‘m going to talk about school lunches like it’s the last thing I’m ever going to talk about.
WWD: Is there a piece of advice that you got early on that has stayed with you?
N.B.: When I first got into the business, I had this big wedding ring, I would occasionally wear my earrings, and [NFL Network executive] Marc Watts said to me, “You’re so articulate and you’re making great points and what you say matters. But oftentimes viewers can be distracted by little things.” It could be how big your watch is or how big your earrings are. And sometimes it could be your suit. I’d be up there, I’m doing my thing, I’m charming, I’m smiling, speaking every word clearly. And I’m thinking, that was an awesome segment and he’d look at me and say, “You did all of that and didn’t say anything. Say something.” So I’ve dialed it back a ton because I want the viewer to focus on what matters, which is the news, the storytelling.
There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes. I’m in the infancy stages of my [broadcasting] career, I’m still learning, I’m still growing. And I get to do it in front of the world, with a front row seat to history, as Gayle King would say.
WWD: Well, as they say, break a leg.
N.B.: I already did that in football, so I hope I don’t do that on morning TV.