Nate Burleson has been up since 4 a.m., but you can’t really tell. Since joining CBS Mornings as a co-host in 2021 (call time: 7 a.m.), he’s eschewed the snooze button in favor of a drive to Times Square from his home in New Jersey, followed by a production call, make-up, a scan of the day’s headlines, and then two hours of broadcasting the news. Today, the ex-wide receiver is pulling a double shift inside CBS’s west side production headquarters, pre-recording an episode of Nickelodeon’s NFL Slimetime, which he co-hosts with “Young” Dylan Gilmer once a week throughout the football season. On the neon-colored set, Burleson has swapped out his suit and tie for a red jacket and washed-out, ripped jeans, and is currently trading energetic teleprompter reads and doing The Griddy in front of a large, slime-drenched video screen.
“A-MAR-IIIIIII COOO-PERRRRR,” Dylan screams.
“The Wide RECEIVER!!” Burleson yells back.
Though it’s a particularly busy day for Burleson, it’s nothing compared to his upcoming Super Bowl week. Starting Thursday at 2 a.m., he’ll wake up to record CBS Mornings with co-anchors Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil live from Las Vegas. And then he’ll prepare for a Sunday marathon: hosting a Slime Time Super Bowl special and contributing to four hours of The NFL Today’s pregame (and later halftime and postgame) coverage, before “changing clothes like Superman” to call the big game between the Chiefs and 49ers on Nickelodeon—the Super Bowl’s first-ever alternate telecast. “I don’t think any other talent has pulled off the week that I’m going to,” Burleson says. “It’s going to be a beast.”
Throughout his 11 years catching passes for the Vikings, Seahawks, and Lions, Nate Burleson had always envisioned a career beyond football. A couple years before retiring in 2014, he attended a broadcaster boot camp, caught the eyes of execs at NFL Network, and eventually helped launch its first morning show, Good Morning Football, in 2016. Over the last few years, he’s developed into one of the network’s most valuable assets—an indispensable swiss-army knife capable of interviewing Barack Obama, delivering pointed football analysis, and speaking to kids without sounding like a boomer. In between, Burleson has managed to keep family time—with his wife, two college-aged sons, and daughter—a priority. “They’re the ones that give me the energy that I need,” he says.
On the afternoon we speak, his paternal instincts are on full display, dispensing football wisdom in between camera setups. After a burst of confetti to celebrate the production’s final New York show, Burleson engages the crew with fist bumps and hearty goodbyes. Their season might be over, but he’s still got the toughest stretch of his near decade-long broadcasting career to conquer. “I want to show up and be spectacular,” he says. “It’s going to be a demanding week, but I’m up for the challenge.”
How do you handle the whiplash of CBS News to Nickelodeon like today? Is the car ride over where you get into kids mode? How do you compartmentalize?
I used to think that I was terrible at multitasking, and maybe I was. I didn’t have the level of maturity or professionalism to handle multiple jobs at the same time. But if I know I have a good grip on CBS Mornings, I’ll have my assistant print out today’s [Nickelodeon] script and I’ll read it during the commercial breaks. Oftentimes, if you walk into CBS Mornings, you will see me reading two different scripts—a thick 40-to-60 page booklet of Nickelodeon scripts, and then these pink pieces of paper, which are my news scripts. I try to get a feel for the writing, the tone, because we do a lot of themes at NFL Slimetime—a construction theme, a British theme. Sometimes the writers get wild because they know I like to flex all of these creative muscles.That way, when I walk in, I’m not learning on the fly. I don’t want to waste everybody’s time here. If I come in more prepared it makes everybody else’s job easier.
Your schedule for the Super Bowl is packed. How do you even wrap your head around all of your responsibilities?
No lie. The day after last year’s Super Bowl was when I started thinking about Super Bowl LVIII. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve thought about it every day. It’s hard not to. I knew that I’d be juggling three different shows, and Sunday is going to be the hardest working day I’ve ever had. Then I’ll decompress, take a breath, but I can’t party, I can’t go clubbing, I can’t go have a late dinner that night, because I have to wake up Monday and co-anchor from Vegas, because Gayle and Tony are flying back and they expect me there to break down the game. Speaking transparently, Super Bowls are about the party. They’re about networking and socializing—going to all the exclusive parties, drinking, staying up late, making money on the side. When you’re a former player, Super Bowl week is like trick-or-treating. Everybody’s handing out cash for you to show up and talk ball.
While you’re promoting Avocados from Mexico on radio row…
Exactly. Or you’re talking in front of a small group of Fortune 500 company employees, showing up for an appearance, or high-fiving and signing autographs and getting a check. I have to turn down all those opportunities.
How do you prepare for something you haven’t experienced before? Do you have a game plan already in place?
Sleep is a priority. I’ve never in my life scheduled sleep or nap times. I just take them as they go. But for the first time, I have sleep in my itinerary. I have to force myself to go back to the room. And then I still have to be football-minded as I approach this week. Even though I have NFL Slime Time and I have CBS Mornings, I still have to come up with the best X’s and O’s analysis on Sunday. I still want to be that guy. I want people to listen to me and say, “Holy smokes, I didn’t think about that angle.” I truly believe this is going to change the way people look at Super Bowl week. We want to apply pressure to every network after this until we get the Super Bowl again.
You’re at a potentially interesting inflection point with your NFL Today crew. James Brown, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher, and Phil Simms all have expiring contracts. Some have speculated you might be tapped to host the show, or a new iteration of it. Have you allowed yourself to consider what that might look like?
It’s hard not to think about the potential opportunity for hosting The NFL Today or having a bigger role. But I resist the urge because if I constantly think about that, I feel like I’m plotting on my brothers’ jobs. Coach Cowher is amazing. [So are] Boom and Phil, and, of course, JB. He’s like a mentor to me. If I were to think about being in his seat every Sunday, that would mean I’m plotting to snatch the seat from a guy that has already opened up doors for me. If the opportunity happens, I’ll be ready to step in that role. As of right now, I still feel like a complementary piece and I just try to be the best version of that. That doesn’t mean I’m not ready to grab the mic.
Now that you’ve been in this industry a while, do you think that career scheming happens more in football or in the media?
When I first got the job at CBS Mornings, Michael Strahan was like, “Remember, you are an incredible talent—a lot different than me. There’ll be comparisons, but have confidence in knowing you’re unique. You’ll continue to separate yourself from the ‘Kirkland brand Michael Strahan.’” And then he said something that I’ll never forget: “Not everybody who sees you in that seat wants you to be in it.” I didn’t feel any type of way about it. That’s football, right? Not every guy on your team is happy that you’re the starter. Same way in the media. I show up every day, trying to raise the bar. Eventually, you’ll earn everybody’s respect that way. But it did open my eyes more to the scheming, a little bit of the gossip and the jealousy. It happens in every industry.
You’ve previously mentioned how off-camera reps for you are sometimes more important than on-camera reps, especially when you were starting Good Morning Football. What did you mean by that specifically?
Reading out loud and watching myself on mute. That way, I can see my body language and see if I’m communicating well without using my words. Then closing my eyes, listening to my words, and seeing if my pitches are too high. Sometimes you see people just doing too much with their body. I had those moments earlier in my career, trying to be someone else, sound like someone else, move like someone else, dress like someone else. I was a reflection of all my influences. All of those things helped me develop who I am on TV. I’m a former NFL athlete. I think I’m decently clever. I like fashion. But at the core of it, I love animation, cartoons, movies, music, pop culture. Now that I’m 42 and have a family, politics weigh heavy on my heart. Having a wide variety of interests has given me that versatility on camera to cover everything with the same enthusiasm. I just kept putting feathers in my cap.
At this point, do you have a sense of how you’re progressing as a broadcaster? Or when you’ve had a good show? Who do you look to for real and honest feedback about what you’re doing?
Everyone. As confident as I may appear on the outside, I’m just like everybody else. I question whether I’m doing a good enough job. I lean on people that work in this space, especially those behind the camera—producers, directors—that have been doing this for longer than me. I remember when I first got to NFL Network, I liked hearing myself talk. I thought being clever and spitting out cliches was good enough to get through a show. Occasionally I’d get in my bag and feel really good, but when I didn’t have a good show, I didn’t have enough people telling me it wasn’t good. It’s the parallel between what I do now and sports. When you’re coachable, you improve faster. I try to be as coachable as possible. When anybody offers up advice, I embrace it. The only people I don’t listen to are online trolls. I’ll occasionally take constructive criticism from a random person on social media if they’re sincere. There’s a younger group of women that are like, “Yo, I like it when your hair’s braided or when it’s in dreads.” They like “Sexy Nate” with a little bit of edge to him. Then there’s that 50-to-70 demo. They’re like, “We like your hair in a flat top, nice and professional.” They’re old school. I’m trying to walk the fine line.
Do you already have your Super Bowl hairstyle figured out?
I’m trying to figure it out. There’s demographics that I’m hired for. Those cougars love me. Shout out to all the cougars out there.
OK, you’re calling the Super Bowl, but you’re doing it for Nickelodeon. You’ve called games on the channel before, but how do you prepare to explain the big game to a Nick audience? What kind of vocabulary are you using?
The first Nickelodeon game that I did, I came in hot because I’m a creature of habit. I’m like, “The defense is playing Cover-2, and the linebacker didn’t drop deep enough to get into that zone in order to clog it up.” Someone got in my ear and was like, “Hey, Nate, dial it back on the jargon, our audience doesn’t care.” He wasn’t saying that our audience didn’t have a football IQ, but they’re watching because they want a more digestible breakdown. From there, I completely rewired my brain. The second Nickelodeon game, I spent two days prior studying the game, and then the night before, I watched every throwback Nickelodeon show that I loved as a kid and I just wrote notes on notes on notes to drop subtle nods to shows from yesteryear. I’ve never felt more prepared for something because I was tapping into 12-year-old Nate.
You’re not explaining the biography of Kyle Shanahan to this group.
Exactly. I’m not breaking down his playbook and telling people why the two-minute drill worked. I’m trying to make sure that they understand the game and can go to school and talk about it.
Every time there’s a Nickelodeon game, a lot of people wonder how the broadcasters—along with the production and graphics teams—would handle a Damar Hamlin situation. Is that something you and the crew ever discuss?
It’s very similar to our normal broadcast. If it’s really bad, we’re going to shift the camera, redirect their attention, and then talk about something else. Of course, we’re even more protective because we have sensitive eyes—these are young kids. So if there’s an injury, we will talk about what happened briefly and then shift the conversation to something else, come back, and give an update. Thankfully, we haven’t had too many bad injuries. I’m more worried about explaining a fight breaking out. But then I thought about elementary school and middle school recess and lunch rooms—there’s plenty of fights and confrontations. I’ll just relate it to getting sent to the principal’s office, which is the locker room.
And having your 13-year-old daughter, Mia, around probably helps give you a template for how to go about it.
Oh, yeah. Well, not just Mia. I started doing the show when my sons were in high school. They really keep me young and fresh. I’m like, “Tell me about what shows you like, what music you like, what stuff you’re talking about? What’s the slang that I can say to purposely sound like the old guy trying to be hip in a broadcast?” And no lie, like almost simultaneously, all of my kids were like, “OK, we’ll help you. But how much are you paying us?” I raised them right.
So you’re up in the booth for Nick, then you’re rushing down to the field for the halftime show. Is there any worry that you start to—
One hundred percent. I don’t know what you’re asking [laughs], but I’m just going to assume two things: There’s a worry that I’m really going to have to rush into my outfit. But my worst fear is that I forget to flip the switch. I’m back with the big fellas on NFL Today and Boom comes in with a serious topic on the quarterback—He has to see the blitz coming in—and then I come in, “WHOA, what a WACKY game. SpongeBob’s all over the place,” and I’m in Nickelodeon mode. That’s like my worst fear.
Yeah, I was wondering about whether your youthful inflection bleeds into the other show.
Nah [laughing]. The guys will joke about it, though. It’s inevitable for me to make fun of myself. When I come back from the booth, they’ll for sure have some jokes
I’ve been thinking about it. I know I have another big moment. I really wouldn’t be tripping off of it if I didn’t get a ton of messages from people saying thank you. One guy sent me a video of him losing his mind watching the game, bleeping all the way through it. They showed me the ticket, it was like $10,000. So I hit him back. I was like, “Cool, but where’s my cut, fam?” I know there’s going to be people thinking it’s a long shot. But if it works, it could be pretty lucrative.
Well, you are in Vegas…
I’ll tell you. If I get it right in Vegas… Bro, I’m about to open up my own gambling site. It’s going to be “Nate’s Takes.” You know what I’m saying? I’m taking over. Draft Kings, Fanduel, move out the way. Here I come.