Nate Burleson calls the CBS Mornings co-host role “the most fulfilling job that I’ve ever had.” This is coming from a man who spent more than a decade as a starting wide receiver in the NFL, and parlayed his gridiron success into on-air television success. Burleson officially retired from the NFL in 2014, joined NFL Network in 2016 as a co-host on Good Morning Football, and CBS Sports in 2017 as an analyst on The NFL Today.
Fast forward to 2021, and CBS News surprised many in the industry when it named Burleson the new co-host of the network’s weekday morning show, replacing veteran CBS News journalist Anthony Mason. CBS This Morning (as it was known then) was known for its “hard news” slant relative to competitors Good Morning America and Today—and Burleson was a TV news neophyte.
Burleson has faced critics in the past, going back to his days in the NFL, and exactly one year into his new role, Burleson has emerged as a solid storyteller and model teammate on CBS Mornings. He likens co-host Gayle King to the show’s quarterback, with ep Shawna Thomas and other producers as coaches and GMs.
Burleson spoke with us Tuesday via Zoom to mark the one-year anniversary of CBS Mornings. He told us about making the transition from television sports to television news—and sage advice he has received from another well-known pro football player-turned-morning news personality, Michael Strahan.
What was the transition from sports TV to morning news like—and how are you feeling about the show and overall experience one year in?
Burleson: I’m loving it. This is the most fulfilling job that I’ve ever had. Playing in the NFL for 11 years, I thought it couldn’t get any better. It was a rock star lifestyle— traveling around the country, scoring touchdowns, playing the hero or villain depending on if you’re at home or away. I truly believe that life couldn’t get any better. Just from a fulfillment standpoint. I’m not talking about family and friends, just having the best job in the world.
Then, accepting this job—there are a few layers to it that makes it special. One, speaking about [former CBS This Morning co-host] Anthony Mason—I’ve realized how good he is and what he brings to the table; not just him, but also other individuals that have sat in the same seat that I sit in every day. That right there adds different element, almost a standard that you know you must uphold each and every day.
There’s also pressure to be great. I remember speaking with Shawna about this early on, while we were still talking about if it was a possibility for me to join the show. Shawna said, “This is going to be hard work. Like hard, really hard. I know you have other jobs. This is the big stage.” I said, “No, I get it.” I love the fact she knew I understood that—and I was already going into it with that mindset, but she wanted to re-emphasize that. Everyone involved, whether they are on-air, behind the scenes, or in the control room, that is the standard, to make sure we are informative—and make sure that our information and how we deliver it creates thought provoking conversation and is also entertaining.
Now at a year in after this wild start—for me at least, because I was juggling a handful of jobs at the time—I’ve found my rhythm and I’m able to add value to the show. I’ve lived a lifetime, which football for me felt like a lifetime, where all I sought after was the main stage. I wanted to be the guy with the ball in my hand, I wanted to get 60,000 people to stand up after I score. It was about me. Diva receivers, that’s what we think about.
But now, I don’t want individual success. I want to be part of something special. I never had a chance to win a Super Bowl. I never had team victories or bowl games in college. For me, the success of this show is reflection of this network—and the success of the network is a reflection of the pieces within it.
I’m living the dream, and I know people say that haphazardly, but I truly do mean it, which is why we show up with smiles on our faces and we’re enjoying the moment—even when we have to lift heavy stories and deliver them to our viewers. In the moments where we can laugh and smile and joke that is purely authentic, because we’re loving every moment.
I know this is not all about trophies, but winning something validates hard work. I remember talking to Gayle and she was like, “Well, you got the job, now the real work starts … what do you want to do?” And I told her about the stories I want to touch on and what I want to bring to the table. I said, “After all of that, I want us to win an Emmy.” I want the show to win—and that’s because I get to see what’s going on behind the curtain. I get to see the hard work that’s put in. We’re the faces because we’re the talent, but we have so many talented people that help this thing go.
Are there any skills you developed during your football days that you implement as part of your on-air work today?
Burleson: Being on a football team, you have to coexist. No matter how much of a diva wide receiver I wanted to be, I swallowed my pride when I stood next to [former Detroit Lions wide receiver] Calvin Johnson or [former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver] Randy Moss. I didn’t have the ball in my hand, it was the quarterback. I didn’t make the decision, that was the coaches.
So, when you think about that, you can even call Gayle the quarterback and then our producers and individuals that are in positions to make decisions like Shawna, they’re the owners, GMs, coaches. There will be times when my number’s called that I step up, and hopefully I don’t fumble the ball, using a football analogy. It’s understanding that a shared stage is better for the audience—and I don’t want the light on me, but if you shine it on me, I’ll be ready to do my dance.
Also, understanding that there’s a common goal—and it’s a long journey. You don’t come in day one in September and say, “all right, we’re going to get through the week—and then we can get ready for vacation.” Football season is one of the longest grinds ever because it doesn’t just start in September. You’re never really off because if you get too out of shape, you’ll be behind. Then, you start up again. What that taught me going into jobs like this, is that I’m never really off.
Even when you’re off, you’re either watching the show or you’re tapped into world news, or you’re trying to figure out the next story you want to tell. There are times where—this has actually happened over the last couple of days: I had three dreams about three stories—and I woke up and I was like, “man I should have written it down when I was asleep.”
A couple of them I remember, but I’m starting to dream about the things that I want to do and bring to this show—and this hasn’t happened since football, when I would go to sleep on a Saturday and dream about scoring a touchdown and then that would happen. I can tell that my heart is full with this show.
The Michael Strahan comparison will always be there. Did you speak with Strahan as you stepped into this role and—if so—did he provide you with any specific advice?
Burleson: I talked to him when I first got the job and he was like, “Congratulations, man. I’ve seen this coming a mile away. It’s about time you took the next step in the evolution of your career.” He said, “Let me know if you need anything. I’m always here for you.”
I’ll take you back to a conversation I had with Strahan. In 2016, I was in Los Angeles working at NFL Network. I was leaving a hotel headed to work to do a morning show at the network in Culver City. He was coming back in from a morning jog. I said, “Stra, what’s up man, how are you doing?” He said, “I’m good, man. Good to see you.” I said, “Listen, I know you gotta go, I gotta go, I have a car waiting—give me one bit of advice. I like to get some gems from you, every time I see you.”
He said, “Be careful turning down jobs because they don’t come around as often as people think and—for us—when we do get opportunities, we have to take advantage of them.” I dapped him up, walked out—and that right there was the foundation of some of my decision-making after that.
He’s been one of those guys that always been in my corner. We had lunch a month ago in the city, just hanging out and seeing where he is versus where he started. Now having a production company, doing things in the entertainment space.
I’ll take the comparison. Who doesn’t want to be compared to somebody that has helped rewrite the blueprint? Strahan isn’t the first African American to transition out of sports into TV, but he did rewrite it in a sense. We were talking at lunch—and I said this to him and a few other people that we were eating with, I said, “I’m taking your blueprint and I am adding my own twist to it.”
I didn’t win a Super Bowl, I don’t have a Hall of Fame jacket, I didn’t play in a huge market like New York. I want to be as great as I can to continue to open doors for individuals that might have a career like Strahan, but also might have a career like mine where— good player, well respected, but not necessarily someone who will come to the front of your mind when you talk about all-time greats.
Strahan’s my guy, he’s always been in my corner. I remember when I first got the job, he said, “Hey, it’s going to be the most work that you that you’ve ever done, but you’re going to enjoy it and remember this: Not everybody wants you in that seat, so be great.”
What can the viewer expect coming into this new season of CBS Mornings?
Burleson: I would say, continue to strengthen the thread that connects the talent of correspondents, both nationally and internationally. I love it when we get to show the connection between how well we all work together—and the more that we can do that, the more our family grows and the viewer gets to realize that our roster is very deep. Also, like Shawna said, the exquisite storytelling—the storytelling that not only pulls on your heartstrings, that makes you think when you walk out the door, but more importantly creates change.
I think about the Culebra Beach story that [CBS News correspondent] David Begnaud covered a few times. They didn’t have lifeguards, or medical equipment and the ambulances. He was on the set (talking about it)—I was such a fan of the moment because real change was happening. Or those men and women of service who were exposed to toxic burn pits—that right there, it feels like your team winning a game, except I’m experiencing in real time, because it’s a live show. As much as I love sports and entertainment—and I could do those sit-down interviews and tell those stories easily—I also want to be part of those stories that create a better world, because CBS does that and I don’t think there’s anything more fulfilling than that.