Nate Burleson excelling in fledgling NFL TV career
Nate Burleson was born for TV.
As a player, Burleson was among the most charismatic people in the locker room, quick with a quip and gracious with his time.
When he went to the NFL's Broadcast Boot Camp three years ago, he was so good that he earned a gig guest-hosting for SiriusXM NFL radio on the spot.
And last year, after a hamstring injury effectively ended his playing career, Burleson jumped to a job on NFL Network and was impressive enough that the network used him in its Super Bowl coverage.
This week, Burleson, who played four seasons with the Lions in 2010-13, will return to Ford Field as a color analyst for the first of three exhibition games Thursday against the New York Jets.
He watched the Lions practice last week at Novi High School and afterward spent 20 minutes chatting with reporters about life after football, his fledgling television career and his old team.
"I always find the silver lining and the glass half full and the best things to be happy about," Burleson said. "Like when I played, I was happy I was just next to Calvin (Johnson). And now I go to work and I'm sitting in the same room as Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk and Deion (Sanders), guys I idolized and guys that are absolute legends. So it's fun, and then on top of that, I find myself still trying to improve on something.
"It's just like playing ball. I hop off the set and first thing I want to know is like, 'What can I improve upon? What did I do? Was I concise enough? Did I seem confident in my point? Did I overtalk? Undertalk?' So it's just trying to improve on this craft, but all in all, I couldn't ask for a better job out of football. It keeps me distracted enough to where I don't miss it."
Burleson played 11 NFL seasons with three teams. He was drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2003 and played four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks before the Lions signed him in 2010.
Burleson caught a career-high 73 passes in his second season in Detroit, but injuries cut short his final two years with the Lions. He spent training camp last summer with the Cleveland Browns before his body betrayed him.
After practice Wednesday, as he joked around with Johnson and ran a playful pass route against cornerback Darius Slay, Burleson said he doesn't yearn for his playing days in part because "I don't have to look in the pantry to figure out what Tylenol or Advil I'm taking with breakfast. It's a certain sense of freedom I haven't had in a long time.
"The moment I had with Slay, that was the most I've ever wanted to run a route since I've stopped playing, but it's only because you get to talking a little trash and flashbacks happen," Burleson said. "Honestly, that was like the funnest thing I've done in a long time. Besides that, though, I think because when I exited I was so banged up and I had that severe tear in Cleveland, with a gap in the back of my hamstring and I'm healing up from all these past injuries and all of a sudden I stop taking pain pills and my body starts feeling good, that feeling was better than the possible attempt in my head to come back. I couldn't figure out in my head a way to rationalize making a comeback. And even though there was teams interested last year, I was like, 'You know what? I'm ready. Eleven years. There's nothing calling me to the field.'"
There is plenty keeping Burleson in broadcasting. Up until now, Burleson has worked primarily in studio, where he is able to flash his charm and use his knowledge to analyze a wide range of players and topics in today's NFL.
"I like the studio. I'm comfortable in the studio," he said. "And this may sound vain, but I like dressing up, I like putting on a suit, I like being on TV."
Being in the booth, though, as he will be Thursday when he joins longtime broadcaster Matt Shepard and ex-Lion Rob Rubick, brings a new set of challenges.
"In the studio I write my own script, I do everything myself and then I love the back and forth I get to do with the people I work with. It's a great rapport there. And you get a little bit of time," Burleson said. "It's different in the game. You're going to get alley-oops and you got to finish, and you got to finish in a very eloquent way and you can't be repetitive. Every play's not a great play and an awesome this, an awesome that."
Burleson, who also heard from the Seahawks about joining their preseason broadcast team, admits that most people think he's a Lions homer. He said Matthew Stafford can vault himself into conversation as one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFL with a good 2015 season.
But he said he'll bring unique insight and perspective to the exhibition games this week against the Jets, next week against Washington and Sept. 3 against Buffalo.
"I've been a guy trying to prove himself as a rookie. I've been a newly paid guy in Seattle trying to prove I'm not a bust. I've been a Detroit wide receiver who's trying to prove he can stay healthy, so I've been a rookie and a vet, I've been rich, I've been broke, I've been all these levels in between so I know exactly what every guy is going through," Burleson said. "So I'm going to talk about that, going to bring that perspective because I think it's important for people at home to really understand the mindset of these guys going into each game.
"Most people just sit at home and say, 'Oh, guys don't care about preseason.' Nah, they actually do. Let me tell you what that young fella's thinking, let me tell you why that guy decided not to fair catch, because he wanted to make a play and it's the third quarter and he hasn't done anything yet. But I just want to drop some knowledge. I want people to really leave with some gems."