CFL helped develop Calgary native Burleson's love for football

He never played a down in Canada, but it was the CFL that ignited Nate Burleson's football passion.

Burleson's father, Al, spent six seasons as a defensive back with the Calgary Stampeders (1976-81), earning league all-star honours in 1978. And it was during the '81 campaign that Nate Burleson was born in the Alberta city.

After Al Burleson finished his pro career with the USFL's Los Angeles Express in 1983, the family moved to Seattle. That's where Nate Burleson grew up before accepting a football scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno, and being selected in the third round of the '03 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings.

"Growing up, I didn't know the difference between the CFL and NFL," Burleson said during a recent interview. "I remember one specific moment when I was around nine or 10, I went into the garage . . . it was a summer day, I was by myself and bored and I stumbled upon all of my dad's Calgary Stampeders stuff.

"I was amazed, blown away, because at this time I didn't really know in-depth about my dad's career. He played in high school in San Francisco, he played at the University of Washington and a little in the USFL but he had more Canadian memorabilia and I just gravitated toward that so my love for the CFL was my inception into my love for football."

Burleson, 42, played 11 NFL seasons as a receiver with Minnesota (2003-05), the Seattle Seahawks (2006-09) and Detroit Lions (2010-13). The six-foot, 198-pound Burleson registered 457 career catches for 5,630 yards and 39 touchdowns and is the only player in league history to have three punt returns of 90-plus yards.

Growing up, though, Burleson's first thoughts of a pro career revolved around playing in Canada.

"I thought if I was good in football, I'm going to make it to the CFL," he said. "That was until one day when somebody said, 'Well, that's a great goal but I think you might make a little bit more money in the NFL.'

"I was like, 'Really? I wouldn't know, my pops is a CFL legend.'"

On or off the football field, Burleson has never forgot his Canadian roots. In fact, he has Maple Leaf tattoos on an arm and leg.

"I'm a proud Canadian," he said. "Even my older brothers would call me a Canadian growing up.

"All of my (three other) brothers were born in the U.S. and I didn't really know what that meant but I took it as a sense of pride in that, 'Yeah, I'm unique. I'm the unicorn in the house, bro. I'm internationally made.'"

Right down to his speech and engaging demeanour.

"Every once in a while it (saying Eh) slips out," Burleson said. "And people describe me as a nice guy, which is the good stereotype us Canadians get."

When Burleson played football, the game was of paramount importance to him. But he's had no difficulty transitioning out of it and into media.

He began preparing for a career in media in 2012 when he attended the NFL's broadcast boot camp. Two years later, after retiring as a player, Burleson began working as an analyst with NFL Network before serving as a member of the Lion's pre-season broadcast team n 2015.

In 2016, Burleson worked on NFL Network's Good Morning Football before joining the NFL on CBS as a studio analyst for NFL Today during the '17 season. Twice he earned a sports Emmy Award (2021-22) as outstanding studio analyst and made headlines last year by not only correctly predicting Kansas City's 38-35 Super Bowl win over Philadelphia but picking Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes as game MVP.

These days, Burleson, a married father of three (two boys, one daughter), is a co-host of CBS Mornings, an American weekday news television program.

"No, I don't miss football because I'm busy and I'm thankful and blessed for that," Burleson said. "What happens (with) athletes is they fall so deeply in love with their sport that when it's time to break up, they're crushed.

"But for me, I was able to fall in love with media. I also had a restaurant and clothing-line business, was helping athletes invest money and I still write poetry so I have a few different loves that divide my time."

However, Burleson isn't one to let the grass grow beneath his feet.

"I'm never content, there's always room for growth," he said. "I feel like making my mark in sports was something I desperately wanted to do to prove I could transition out of football into media.

"Then I did some work at Extra to show people I could also do the entertainment thing and now working in news and being able to show everybody the complete versatility of Nate Burleson . . . I do believe it's time for me to help open up doors for people that want to follow my lead.

"I have a production company and we're going to start producing content on everything from scripted to non-scripted, documentaries, short docuseries. The sky is the limit for me and I'm not done."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press