Nate Burleson will be in the spotlight Tuesday as he joins the anchor team of Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil on “CBS Mornings.”
The network’s weekday news show is debuting a new name (tweaked from the previous “CBS This Morning”), a new studio in Times Square and, in Burleson, a new co-host.
But the 40-year-old former Detroit Lions wide receiver isn’t worried about his new gig. Ever since his college days, he has been committed to speaking up and seizing the moment.
“I wanted to always be able to speak for myself,” says Burleson of choosing to study communications at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I didn’t want to have a need to lean on anybody else to be my voice.”
Chatting by phone less than a week before his on-air premiere, Burleson sounds confident about entering the top echelons of broadcast news. While he is grateful for the opportunity, he emphasizes that he has been putting in the hard work— and making the choices — necessary to achieve such a goal.
“Let me just say this, none of this was by accident,” says the former NFL player who won an Emmy in 2021 as outstanding sports personality/studio analyst.
“So when people say, ‘Well, how did he get in this position?,’ I strategically worked certain jobs. I strategically overworked myself to exhaustion sometimes because I just wanted to put work out there.”
It takes a huge commitment to reach the hyper-competitive ranks of network TV morning news, a high-stakes contest between ABC, CBS and NBC — as well as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — for the hottest breaking stories, highest ratings and most advertising dollars.
The morning shows are key moneymakers for news departments, which (like the rest of broadcast TV and cable) are battling a decline in viewership as streaming options continue to expand.
On a recent “Talk of the Table” segment about the “CBS This Morning” revamp, King, the show’s lead star, talked about how well the rehearsals with Burleson have been going. Dokoupil joked about visiting their rivals at the top-rated “Good Morning America,” who already have their own nearby Times Square set.
“Nate and I walked over with a cake and a fruit basket the other day. … I don’t know why, but security said no,” cracked Dokoupil.
From its longtime third-place spot in the ratings, “CBS This Morning” has earned a reputation for focusing more heavily on news and in-depth features than “GMA” and NBC’s “Today,” which are perceived as having a lighter tone (at least after the news-laden 7 a.m. hour).
The arrival of Burleson — he’s replacing Anthony Mason, who’ll now focus on cultural reporting — could inject fresh energy into the “CBS Mornings” reimagining, as the network is describing it. The new format is likely to capitalize on his knowledge of sports and entertainment and his experience with interviewing everyone from Lady Gaga to Ryan Reynolds to Michelle Obama.
And next week, he’ll become the second former pro football player in the network morning news wars. Michael Strahan, the NFL Hall of Famer and ex-“Live with Kelly and Michael” star, has been a co-host of “Good Morning America” since 2016.
Born in Calgary, Alberta, and raised in the Seattle region, Burleson was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2003 and went on to have a substantial 11-year career playing for the Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks and the Detroit Lions.
Even back then, he had a sense, as did observers, that great things might be ahead for him in the TV realm.
During his 2010-13 stretch with the Lions, Burleson became a favorite go-to person for post-game interviews, thanks to his reliably candid and thoughtful comments.
”I was very honest, so when we lost a game, I didn’t hit them with a cliché and tell them things that they’ve heard. I talked about exactly what happened in the game and what we needed to do to correct it,” he says.
Burleson also could bring the necessary hype. “When we won, of course, I’m going to give you all the great headlines you need to put up in the paper.”
During those Detroit years, Burleson had a chance to sharpen his broadcasting skills. In 2012, he attended the NFL Broadcast Boot Camp, an event for players eyeing a future in the media.
He also gained experience as a player-analyst for WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), the city’s ABC affiliate. Burleson had the “it factor” when the camera went on, according to current WXYZ sports anchor/reporter Brad Galli.
“What we realized made him great is what has him where he is now: authenticity. Nate is real. I was a fresh-out-of-college reporter when he worked with us. Yet he has never let a text or call go without a response. As real as he seems on TV: that’s who he is,” says Galli.
Burleson and Galli were both part of the Michigan Emmy-winning team in 2014 for the station’s “Ford Lions Report Live.”
Former Detroit Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown, who provides commentary and analysis for WJR-AM’s Lions game day broadcasts, say Burleson has done “an awesome job” ever since he started his on-air career.
“Nate is very knowledgable, very energetic. He has great charisma,” says Brown, who says he’s proud of what his friend has accomplished. “I know he’ll be a success with whatever he chooses to do.”
To this day, Burleson says that Detroit has a huge place in his heart. When people ask him which team he liked best, he says he usually answers this way: “I love Minnesota because they drafted me. I love Seattle because I’m from there. But Detroit is a completely different story. I love (Detroiters) for a thousand different reasons.”
Burleson played for the Lions during the era when Detroit “was literally going broke.” (The city filed for bankruptcy in 2013.) Back then, he would talk to other players about the importance of giving their all on the field for fans living in the middle of economic turmoil.
“There’s a lot of guys that they play football, take a check and they go back to their house in the hills or they fly back to the sunny state they live in. But I wanted these guys to understand there are people in Detroit spending their hard-earned money … in hopes that we’re going to play hard. Just in hopes. Not even win. Just hopes that we’re going to play with pride.”
After leaving the NFL, Burleson began climbing the ladder of sports broadcasting. By 2016, he was one of the hosts of the NFL Network’s live morning show, “Good Morning Football,” which he recently left.
The lessons he learned there were an invaluable part of his journey.
Says Burleson: “There’s a lot of flexibility when you have a live, three-hour morning show that’s 48 weeks out of the year. And when the off-season comes around, the producers give you the opportunity to not just give your input and be creative, but produce segments and script segments and be able to throw whatever you want to the teleprompter and recite poetry live on air and really work on all these subtleties, the art, the craft of being on TV.”
Since 2017, Burleson has been an analyst for CBS’s “The NFL Today,” a job he’ll keep. For proof that he has become a national TV celebrity, look no further than a February “Saturday Night Live” opening sketch on 2021 Super Bowl pre-game coverage that featured Chris Redd as Burleson (and Kenan Thompson as James Brown, Mikey Day as Phil Sims and Beck Bennett as Boomer Esiason).
From 2019 to 2021, Burleson took on a job as an entertainment correspondent for the syndicated “Extra.” There, he says, he interviewed everyone “from Al Pacino, (Robert) De Niro, Gaga to J Lo, (Justin) Timberlake to Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynold to Michelle Obama.”
According to Burleson, he set out to flex different muscles with the entertainment news series.
“Adding ‘Extra’ to my already full plate was partially because I wanted people to see I could coexist in the entertainment space and feel completely at home, whether it’s (with) a politician or your favorite celebrity or influencer. I’m not just an athlete who’s comfortable interviewing athletes. I can sit down with anybody.”
Burleson says he is ready for “CBS Mornings” and considers it a chance to demonstrate that he is not just a broadcaster and interviewer, but a storyteller, too.
And, yes, he is prepared for those inevitable Michael Strahan comparisons. More specifically, he is fine with it if you take enough time to watch “CBS Mornings” and see the contrasts.
“When people do make that comparison, I say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’ But then in the same breath, I tell them, ‘Tune in on September 7 and I”ll be able to show you why we are similar, but then why I’m different in the way I do things.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at email@example.com.
7-9 a.m. weekdays