Nate Burleson figured he was getting a courtesy interview from "The NFL Today," which was just being neighborly to a guy who happened to work in an adjacent studio at the CBS Broadcast Center.
This was in 2017, when the show was in the market for a new studio analyst and Burleson had been a regular on the NFL Network’s "Good Morning Football" for about a year.
"I thought initially it was maybe a little bit of my talent and potential they saw, but that it was mostly proximity-based," Burleson said. "Of course, they’re going invite me for an audition. I work in the studio right next door!"
His skepticism only deepened when he was mumbling a pep talk to himself as he looked up and saw walking out of the studio former Cowboys and Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
The two exchanged pleasantries, but Burleson said, "In my head, I’m thinking there’s no way I’m getting this job. This is DeMarcus Ware. C’mon, this dude is a Super Bowl champion, probably going to be a Hall of Famer. He’s handsome. He looks like the Black Mr. Clean."
But he pulled himself together, convinced himself he is "a different type of good" for the job and got it, joining Phil Simms that season in an overhaul after the departures of Bart Scott and Tony Gonzalez.
Now Burleson, 39, is a fourth-year regular on the longest-running NFL pregame show, part of a cast on which he is 20 or more years younger than his colleagues James Brown, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher and Simms.
But Burleson came into the job determined not merely to fill a narrow niche.
"Initially, it’s hey, he’s a young guy, he’s a young hip guy, you’re the young Black guy, there’s a certain role that’s carved out for you, so thrive in that role, knowing what I was brought there to do," he said.
"But I didn’t want it to be what people assumed my role was, which was be really loud and talk really hip and try to be the new generation face on ‘The NFL Today.’ No. What I wanted to do was be authentic, be myself, then also to prove that I could run with the big dogs. I tried to do it in the most respectful way possible."
Burleson, who grew up in Seattle and was an NFL receiver from 2003 to 2013, has fit in with a group of analysts who are native or adopted New York-area residents — often wise-cracking New York-area residents.
"I guess he’s hip," Simms said. "Boomer is not hip. Neither am I, and neither is Bill Cowher. He brings that. He has a different take on it."
Simms said it also is nice to have a different position represented.
"Quarterbacks in TV, they’re everywhere," he said. "But wide receivers, they’re almost like the next thing to the quarterback in today’s league, because there are so many of them. It’s such a big part of the game and the position itself around the NFL is exploding."
Mark Lepselter, Burleson’s longtime agent, recalled introducing him to a group of CBS people just as he was transitioning from playing to television, a relationship that echoed through that 2017 invitation.
"He’s not just a guy who puts on a fancy suit and has nothing to say," Lepselter said. "He’s not a guy who does a bunch of gimmick-type stuff . . . His information and opinions are real. They have substance, and he delivers it in an engaging way. That to me is what you want in a broadcaster."
Naturally, Lepselter is not a neutral observer. But CBS and the NFL Network both regard Burleson as a rising star who could be at this for the long haul.
At "The NFL Today," that means being part of a history that dates to the early 1960s, which was something on his mind on audition day.
"This is a legacy," he said. "This is prime real estate, which is why I didn’t take it lightly. I didn’t walk in there casually and say, let me crack a couple of jokes and mention a couple of things about pop culture like I often do for ‘Good Morning Football,’ because that’s our crowd and our demographic.
"This is different. I put on a suit and shaved my face and walked in and I tried to give them everything. I emptied the bag. As we say in football, I left it all on the field."