Nate Burleson is used to defying expectations.
Just a year after the Minnesota Vikings picked him in the third round of the NFL draft, he faced the daunting task of filling in for an injured Randy Moss. In that 2004 season, he racked up over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. By the time his playing career ended as a wide receiver in 2014, he had recorded three punt returns of 90 or more yards, an NFL record.
Now he's beating the odds on a different playing field.
Less than a decade after making the transition from athlete to broadcaster, Burleson has become a TV star. Since September 2021, he has served as co-host of "CBS Mornings," showing off a wardrobe that's as eye-opening as that first cup of coffee.
"If you look back on my playing days, I had some suits I wouldn't wear right now. Some were kind of baggy," Burleson said in a phone interview last month while driving home after a broadcast. "Now I know how to wear a suit. If there's a competition for best dressed, I'll take on all comers."
Before taking the morning shift, he spent time as an entertainment correspondent for the syndicated series "Extra." This year, he co-hosted both the "Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards" and the CBS game show "Superfan." You'll also find him offering analysis every Sunday from "The NFL Today" studio.
But it's "CBS Mornings" that offers the greatest opportunity to show that he's made the leap from jock to journalist as he holds his own with more seasoned co-hosts Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil.
"When you play football, you have 11 guys with different backgrounds who set aside their differences for one goal: the Lombardi Trophy," Burleson said. "In the media space, it's the same thing. Everyone in front and behind the camera has to work together. My job is to be the best complementary piece I can be. But I also want the damn ball."
But you didn't see Burleson celebrate his memorable interviews with former President Barack Obama or rapper Macklemore with anything resembling a touchdown dance.
"With Nate, you're never going to get an egomaniac or someone who is forcing themselves to be the star of the show," said Minnesota native and Los Angeles-based morning anchor Jamie Yuccas, who filled in for Dokoupil last month. "I admire how comfortable he can make anyone in an interview and how seamlessly he can work with anyone from kids on Nickelodeon to Gayle and Tony. There is a calmness and curiosity to Nate you get to see in his interviewing skills that I think is unique to only a few in the business."
Burleson, 42, is the latest NFL graduate to prove he can appeal to the kind of viewers who watch the Super Bowl only for the commercials.
Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning has hosted two game shows, including 2022's "The Final Straw," a jumbo-sized version of Jenga. Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, who played for the Raiders and Chargers, is a regular on both "American Ninja Warrior" and "The Talk." Terry Crews has had more success on TV ("America's Got Talent," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine") than he ever had on the field. Jesse Palmer, who spent most of his NFL career as a backup quarterback, is now the main starter for "The Bachelor" franchise.
And then there's Michael Strahan. The former defensive end for the New York Giants is all over the ABC schedule, from "Good Morning America" to prime-time "Pyramid."
Burleson said the players' success shouldn't come as a surprise.
"Twenty or 40 years ago, athletes were just athletes. When they dared to step outside the box they were put in, people were like, 'Whoa, what are you doing? I don't want to hear you talk about anything else,'" said Burleson, who occasionally raps under the name New Balance. "Now it's different. Athletes are almost encouraged to have production companies. To be artists. If you walk into a locker room nowadays, we're not talking about X's and O's. We're talking about the stock market and what presidential candidates we're leaning toward."
As a broadcaster, Burleson also has to put in the hours.
"While Nate hasn't been in news as long as Gayle or Tony, his respect for journalism is just as high as theirs and that meant he took his new role seriously," said "CBS Mornings" executive producer Shawna Thomas. "He gets in earlier than the other anchors to start prepping for the day's show. He reads the research. He reads the books. He watches the movies. When we are interviewing a politician or a CEO, he understands that it's his responsibility to know the relevant information so that we can credibly ask hard questions of our leaders."
Burleson's work ethic is one of the reasons Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell had him visit training camp in early August to give the current players a pep talk.
"I have so much respect for individuals that accomplish so many things on the field and then are so motivated and handle things the right way in their post-career chase of what is going to be next for them," O'Connell said. "I don't think really anybody in a long time has had the success that Nate has had, and I love our players hearing that story. He was fantastic."
Burleson, who grew up in Seattle, had never visited Minnesota before being drafted, but he had heard good things about the area from his older brother, Kevin Burleson, who played for the Minnesota Gophers basketball team from 1999 to 2003. Fans welcomed the younger Burleson with open arms.
"I immediately fell in love with the Midwest," he said. "I'd go to the grocery store or gas station and people would show me love. At that point, I hadn't even caught a ball or stepped in the end zone. A lot of rookies don't get that kind of welcome."
He's eager to return, but this time in his role as one of morning TV's rising stars.
"I want to do a profile piece on Prince," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'll be coming back to do that."