Nate Burleson is one of the most versatile talents in the entertainment industry. As the co-host of the CBS Morning’s news table, his self-motivation and remarkable curiosity have led him to exclusive interviews with some of the most notable figures of this generation.
Prior to transitioning into his current pursuits, Burleson had an 11-year career as a wide receiver in the NFL. Throughout his time in the league, he maintained an unwavering focus towards the craft, but the Nevada graduate also understood that life as a professional athlete is something that unfortunately, doesn’t last forever. “I always felt like playing in the NFL was a blessing, don’t get me wrong, but it has to end,” Burleson says.
“It’s a beautiful sport, but you can’t get lost in it, because the moment you feel secure in your spot, the next man’s up and your contract is over, and then real life begins,” he continues. “Football is football, but once you take those pads off, that’s when real life, real adulting happens. So I wanted to make sure that I had plan A, B, C, all the way to Z, and that’s how I navigated myself through this media business once I got done playing.”
In addition to his priceless roles across various news platforms and other entrepreneurial endeavors such as a fashion line and an investment firm, Burleson’s most important endeavor is that of a family man. Being a husband to his wife, Atoya, and a father to their three children is what fulfills this 42-year-old the most.
“Having a beautiful wife and a family that you want to do so much for, and having a mom and dad that you want to continue to spoil and pay back, and having brothers and friends that you want to build businesses with, that’s really the only reason I’m working,” the Superfan host says.
“To continue to create this infrastructure that is this Burleson empire – and it’s not self-serving,” he adds. “Those days of making it about me are done. I lived the athlete’s life. Now, it’s about my circle.”
ESSENCE: To start things off, how does it feel to be back as co-host of CBS Mornings?
Nate Burleson: It feels great. This is one of the most fulfilling jobs that I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot given the time I have spent in the NFL. It’s a blessing to have this type of responsibility, doing a morning news show that covers both national and international topics. I feel extremely grateful that people choose to wake up and start their day with this. I never take that lightly, which is why if you tune in, there’s this childlike wonderment, this curiosity, yet this responsibility that I carry with me. People oftentimes ask why do I look like I’m so locked in? Because I’m lost in the moment, and that’s because I value the moment. So it feels great to be back for another year, working one of the best shows ever.
You’ve definitely transcended the title of sportscaster now. Becoming a journalist that’s well versed in things outside of sports, was that something you always aspired to do or did that kind of manifest during your career?
Well, when I was younger, I thought that I was going to be an artist. I thought I was going to travel the world and perform poetry or paint, draw, or entertain in some form or fashion – then I fell in love with sports. Along that path, I still developed all these characteristics that are coming out on TV today. So the versatility that people may see is something that I pride myself on. Even when I was playing in the NFL, even though I was an athlete, I was so much more than that. I owned a restaurant. I helped athletes invest money. I launched a couple of clothing lines. I was writing poetry; I still do. So there were all these things that I was doing that were in addition to who people thought they knew about, what they thought they knew about me. And once I got this opportunity, I knew it was time to take advantage.
I’m not saying it’s easy, don’t get me wrong. When you wake up and you have to cover everything from politics to pop culture, weather, school shootings, tragedies, to uplifting content, you have to be on your toes in this business and you have to put in the work. We get probably about six or seven books a week, and you have to try to get through as many of them as you can so you can show the author enough respect to know that you actually studied their work before they sit down for an interview. So that’s just in the studio. I’m not even talking about the one-on-one interviews. So it’s a lot of work, but when you love what you do and you have interest in it, it’s not hard work at all. I’m thankful that when you see me covering this wide variety of topics on this show, I don’t have to create false enthusiasm. I’m naturally curious about the majority of the topics that we cover, which makes getting ready for a show or an interview that much easier.
The painting, poetry, etc. – the creative aspect of you – where did that come from? Was it instilled in you by your parents?
Yeah, my mom and dad, they encouraged everything that I wanted to do at a very young age. So I always felt like I could accomplish whatever I put my mind to, but I was also raised in a household with four boys, and I was number three. So as a Leo who loves the stage and the third of four boys that all play sports, that all lived life, that all rocked the flat tops and wore the same clothes, I had to figure out a way to stand out. I’m an ’80s baby, raised in the ’90s, influenced by the 2000s.
I grew up in, what I like to say, my golden age of entertainment. TV was really finding itself. Sports were popping in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, and that was the time when I started to find out who I wanted to be, and I was influenced by all of it. I wanted to be an entertainer. I wanted to speak in front of large crowds. I wanted to show off my creativity. I was a hustler too. I would make clothes at home and then sell them at school.
So, I had all of these different branches that came off of this Nate Burleson tree. And as you become an athlete, people start to trim those branches, even cut off those branches, and they’re like, “No, you need to be one thing. I need to see you as an athlete,” and you put all these things on the shelf. So for the first, let’s say, 20 years of my life, I was a kid that had this wide range of interests that just so happened to be athletic. From 2003 up until I retired, I was this athlete that was into a few things off the field. What I had to do was make sure that I kept feeding into those few things. I’ve seen it time and time again, where athletes get done with their career and they forget who they were or who they want to be, and I didn’t want to do that.
Did you ever face those obstacles in your journalism career because you were a former athlete? Were people trying to put you in a box as you were progressing as a journalist as well?
Yeah. Well, when you go into football, there’s an easy transition. So people expect you to know about the sport, which I do. I could speak about it eloquently. I can debate with the best of them. I was a hooper when I was younger, so I could talk NBA. I could talk about boxing and baseball. I can talk at all. So sports, that’s my wheelhouse. The only challenges I had in sports were the initial misleading compliments that came from producers and execs. And what I mean by that, and this is no fault of their own, they would constantly say, “Good job, good job,” to athletes that were starting off their career even if it wasn’t a good job, because they want to keep you motivated and they don’t want to discourage you. Initially, I remember reaching out to producers and execs and mentors in this space saying, “Don’t tell me ‘good job’ when I’m not doing a good job.”
One day in particular, I remember coming off the set and I just didn’t have a good show. I didn’t feel like I was concise. I don’t feel like I made valid points that people can take home to the barbershop or to the office or to the water cooler. I felt like I took too long to get to certain points, and might’ve stumbled through a couple of segments. And I pride myself on being perfect every show, which doesn’t happen, but that’s what I shoot for. So when I left the set, I’m just replaying the show in my head and hoping that the next show comes sooner than later. So as I walk off, the producers say, “Hey, good job, good job.” And I’m like, “Wait, why are you telling me that?”
“Well, great job, good show, good job.”
I said, “No, no, it’s not a good show. It wasn’t a good job. From now on, if there’s something that you see that I can improve on, tell me. I am asking you to. I am coachable. Criticize me. I want to get better. I don’t want to plateau at any point.” And that was the moment where I think people looked at me differently in the sports space.
Now, when it comes to being a journalist outside of sports, I had to walk myself into different spaces in order for people to take me seriously. So when I was working at the NFL Network, I wanted to make sure I landed the big interviews with the celebrities or the artists. When I was able to sit down with Gaga or Timberlake, that showed people that I can talk with entertainers and performers. And then I did some stuff with Extra. Which, I didn’t need the job at the time, but I just felt like people didn’t know how versatile I was, so I signed on to do Extra two days a week.
So me being able to seamlessly transition into that space, people were able to realize, “Oh, okay, now we know he can do entertainment.” The next step was to convince people that they needed to take me seriously when it came to politics or finance or societal issues. Being able to have bigger conversations at bigger tables with people that have done this for years, maybe even decades, that’s a completely different animal. Now, I’m thankful for CBS Mornings for giving me the opportunity, but that was just the beginning. Having a chance to impress them when I did a couple of appearances on the show, and then from there they’re saying, “Well, he left a little bit of an impact. Let’s bring him back in.”
And that’s just the beginning. Because now, once you get to the table, you have to prove you belong. That’s every single day. And people are waiting for you to mess up. They’re waiting for you to say the wrong thing, wear the wrong thing, react to something the wrong way, just so they can pick you apart. I have to not only acknowledge those things, but uphold the standard, because this is a show with a rich tradition, and I think about that every day. And not just in a negative sense, like I have some people out there that don’t believe in me. No, it’s not that. I’m not saying, “Forget the haters,” or, “Embrace the haters because if you don’t have them, you’re not popping.” I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is I understand that people don’t believe an athlete can transition into this space. So there is a daily grind to prove that not only I belong, but I’m one of the best.
Secondly, I understand that there’s people at this network that also deserve that seat, so I have to be great every day so my peers at this network can learn to respect the work I put in. And I think that comes from being an athlete. Every year is a fight for you to keep your position. So I don’t fear competitiveness. I almost embraced it. The more competitive the field, the better the results will be when you keep your position, because the talent pool is so prevalent that when you stand out, people can’t help but to pat you on the back. And that’s where I am now. I’m forever humble, but forever hungry, and I feel like I’m just beginning.
So there’s these spaces that I am in that after putting in the work, this is years later now. I mean, the first time I was ever on TV was the year I got drafted, in ’03. So people might recognize me for the last decade or so of working in the media space, but in all reality, I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I can proudly say that I am the most versatile talent in media. And if you look at the wide range of shows that I exist on, and exist at a high level, I don’t think there’s anybody else that can say that they’ve done that, kid’s show, game show, news, sports, entertainment.
With all your endeavors, how have you been able to keep a healthy balance between your family and your career?
I didn’t want to be in New York. I hated New York. I’m a West Coast guy. I came out here to visit. It just wasn’t my speed. So when the NFL Network was offering me this job to host a morning show for the NFL Network, I was like, “Nah, that ain’t me. I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. I’m just not feeling that.” But I always tell kids when I go speak at schools that you have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
And after turning down the job time and time again, and I remember my wife and I and my mom were in the kitchen, we’re having this final conversation. I’m like, “I just can’t do it. I’m not going to do it. It’s not even worth it. I don’t even want to hear the numbers that they’re talking about. I’m not moving to New York.” And I went to the bathroom and I was looking in the mirror and I was like, “Bro.” It was like a movie, like you had that conversation with your reflection. I’m like, “Bro, you’re fronting. You tell these kids to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and here you are, you don’t want to move to New York because of what? I’m having this conversation like, “You have to take this job. If you don’t, then you’re contradicting everything that you have said.”
And I walked downstairs and I was like, “Yo, I’m about to accept this job.” And this was 15 minutes after we just got done talking. My wife was like, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah, man, I just made the decision, I have to do this. And if I want to be known as someone that’s versatile, I have to go somewhere where I can host. Good Morning Football will allow me to work on that aspect of being in front of the camera.” And she’s like, “What are you talking about right now?” I was like, “I had a conversation.” She was like, “With who?” I’m like, “Myself. It’s a long story, but I have to take this job.” And credit to my wife, she’s like, “Let’s ride.”
And when I got to New York – and this is touching on balance – I said yes to everything. I was like, “All right, I got to show everybody that I could do everything.” I was waking up at 4:00. I was doing the morning show. I was calling games, traveling everywhere, doing pre-game, post-game. I was doing digital platform work for Sports Illustrated. I was everywhere. Every time somebody needed me, I wanted to show them that I can do it. Then I started to lose all of my facial hair, and I had these small bald spots on the top of my head. And I was tripping because, unless you do it intentionally, a Black dude with a butt naked face, no mustache, no beard, no nothing, I mean, unless you’re Deion Sanders or the Rock, it is just a hard look to pull off. Unless you’re Samuel L Jackson, it’s a tough look.
So at that moment, I realized I needed to figure out how to maintain a positive energy, because I was doing so much that I felt depleted, like my battery level was always on 10% and I was just charging it at night. So I had to realize, one, the best source of energy for me, the best power pack that I have is my family, my wife and my kids. Secondly, I have to realize that I can’t say yes to everything. It’s unhealthy. There is a lot of power in saying no. And I realize that more now than ever. Obviously, once you establish yourself, it’s easier to say no because you’re in high demand. But at that point, I didn’t look at it like that.
So now, the reason why when you peep my social media or you see me out and about, I’m always hanging out with my family, hyping them up, bringing them along, adding them to the shows that I’m on, I’m putting money in their pocket, I’m trying to create this family affair, where everything has this common thread that runs from Nate Burleson the brand all the way through my wife, down to my kids, and then the surrounding pieces, which is extended friends and family. So that’s how I balance everything.
And I make sure I’m present. There were times where I was working so much – and I’m pretty sure most people can identify with this, man or woman – you come home and you’re so caught up in your job that you’re really just a ghost floating around your house. You’re never necessarily in your body, and the only time you’re physically in your body is when you’re asleep, but you’re in and out so much and you’re on this grind, this like perpetual hamster wheel, that you’re just floating. I remember a coach once said, “Be exactly where your feet are,” so that’s what I try to be. And over the last handful of years, I was present, coaching my kids, at their games, showing up for my daughter’s recitals, supporting my wife at her events, pulling up, making sure we’re on the red carpet together, showing what positive energy and Black love looks like on a large, successful scale. That’s what makes this all worth it.