When my “Renaissance Man” guest and good friend Nate Burleson was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2003, he entered a league that, like the NBA, was in the heydey of the bling-bling era. Back then, if you had a contract with a professional sports team or a record deal, Jacob the Jeweler, not Charles Schwab, was at the top of your speed dial and it was normal to walk around wearing the equivalent of a down payment for a Park Avenue penthouse.
“I remember getting that check as third-round pick. After taxes, it was like $524,000. So I’m thinking, a half a million dollars,” Nate told me. He bought the “athlete starter kit” complete with an Escalade.
“All these dudes on my team was stunting. I’m looking at them with the big rims in the interior, so I’m putting TVs on top of the TV. I got video games in the back. I’m never even in the back.”
Nate did take one key shortcut: He bought one real chain and the rest of his jewelry was fake. He continued spending until his old coach DJ McCarthy told him to buy something they don’t make anymore. “So I’m like, ‘What? Like a custom chain, like a fancy car?’ He’s like, ‘Nah, buy some land, some real estate. Go get you a house.’ And if I can go back to the young Nate and tell him, I would tell him to buy some of those things. I’m blessed, though, because I was able to make a couple of contracts after that.”
A steady stream of contracts is not guaranteed in sports. But so many people, myself included, spent their entire first contract: whether it was buying our parents a home, scooping up the fancy car with all the trimmings or buying the contents of a diamond mine. Back then, financial literacy wasn’t readily accessible, so we were learning on the fly and doing things for the first time. Now, of course, leagues provide this type of education. And people like me and Nate are in any rookie’s ear preaching the gospel of a tidy credit report.
Nate had a successful career on the field, but he’s become a bigger star in retirement. While he was still playing ball, he did the NFL’s broadcasting boot camp and landed at the NFL Network, worked for the Lions and then for CBS. In August, he pulled off the Michael Strahan morning TV crossover when he was named “CBS This Morning” co-host alongside another “Renaissance Man” guest Gayle King.
I became a mentor to him during this transition from football to the studio, and I knew he had the chops. Nate is versatile. He knows the game, he knows fashion and he can even rap, which he did during this episode. He can naturally showcase different sides of personality depending on the audience. He worked his tail off because he wasn’t a league superstar given a chair in the booth as soon as he retired.
Credit that work ethic to his parents, who raised four boys in a “competitive household.” And while Nate was playing in Minnesota, his brother Kevin was a guard for the Charlotte Bobcats, making them the only brothers to play in different leagues at the same time. His other two brothers played college ball and his father played in the Canadian Football League and US Football League, but he didn’t make big money.
“Growing up, I didn’t know my dad as the football player … I knew my dad as a dude that left the house working 9 to 5 plus overtime and my mom did the same thing … There were times where, you know, we might have been a little broker than average. And when you’re young and your parents are handling it the right way, you don’t really know. You can eat top ramen for two weeks straight, you just think top ramen is delicious. Then when you get older and have kids, you realize, ‘Oh, they bought that because it was the cheapest thing to buy.’”
When he was drafted, he knew he could graduate from ramen to sushi. However, Nate revealed he was disappointed that he wasn’t selected in the first two rounds, so he decided to take a nap. And that’s when then Vikings coach Mike Tice rang. Tice called him out on sounding lackluster.
“So I was like, ‘Oh, I was taking a nap.’ He’s like, ‘You’re taking a nap during the draft?’ I was like, ‘Nah, just listen, when you see me, I’m going to be ready.’”
After all, Nate was going to be playing with his idol, Randy Moss.
“He only showed you love if you loved the game as much as he did,” Nate said of Moss. It took a year, but the gridiron great saw that Nate’s passion for the game ran deep, and their relationship flipped on like a switch.
“It was almost like one of my favorite movies is ‘Pleasantville’ with Tobey Maguire, where it’s black and white for a long time. Then, all of a sudden things start to happen and you see life in color for the first time … And he kind of just took me under his wing. It was like, ‘All right, I’m going to show you how to be a pro.’”
We talked about his career, his very nuanced thoughts on Kyrie Irving sitting out over a vaccine mandate. “I would love to see [Kyrie] healthy on and off the court, and I would just say, consider getting vaccinated,” he said.
But listen, at the end of the day, I am a crazy Lions fan. Nate and I became friends while he was wearing that blue jersey. I had to know his thoughts on the team because they are currently winless. Yes, winless. Again.
“I saw [coach] Dan Campbell talking after one of the games, and he was damn near tears. And I felt that … So when you’re seeing a team struggle losing by a field goal, record-breaking field goal, overtime field goal, last-minute field goal, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘This is just our luck. Here we are again.’ Detroit singing the blues. So, it seems like the world is against us. But in reality, when you break down those games, I think it’s just youthfulness. It’s a new coaching staff, new players. They haven’t learned how to kind of eke out those tough games yet. That takes time, that takes chemistry. You know what? It takes bumps and bruises and wounds that you can look at. Say to yourself, ‘All right, we know how to compete.’”
He took it back to his own time playing in Detroit. Nate arrived a year after they were 2-14. And a teammate told him that Detroit was where careers went to die. He realized there was no way that guy was giving his all and he wanted to weed out that mindset. At the same time, the city was going bankrupt.
“But what I kept thinking is, ‘All right, so we’re in a city that is struggling financially. Yet we’re millionaires. So, either we are going to be completely dismissive and tone-deaf to what’s going on or we are going to give everything we got on Sunday. So at the very minimum, the people in the city that are struggling have something to smile about.’” And a season after he arrived, they went to the playoffs. And he asked which current players are going to step up and do the same for the fan base.
And after that conversation, I felt like I wanted to run through a wall for Dan Campbell, for the Detroit Lions and, mostly, Nate Burleson. And that’s why I know he will have many people changing the channel to CBS while they drink their morning coffee. He’s magic.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.