Nate Burleson spent years envisioning the tattoo now inked on his lower leg: an illustration of a Canadian flag sitting on Seattle’s Space Needle inscribed with the words “BORN” and “RAISED.”
The Detroit Lions wide receiver believes it depicts the roots of his football career, one fostered by his father, Alvin, who was a defensive back for the Calgary Stampeders from 1976 to 1981. The only one of four Seattle-raised sons to be born in Canada during his father’s stint in the CFL, Burleson wears the distinction proudly.
Before Burleson takes the field Saturday, when the Lions make their first playoff appearance since 1999 against the New Orleans Saints, he will do just as he does prior to all of his games: call his dad.
“He speaks honestly with me and won’t let me harp on my mistakes. There are certain things I do as a receiver that tip off [defensive backs] and my dad helps me see those things,” Burleson said. “I joke around with him, ‘Me in my prime versus you in your prime, I’d tear you up Dad.’
“I joke, but I would still give him the nod, because he was the man.”
Burleson had 73 catches for 757 yards and three touchdowns this season, as part of the versatile receiving corps helping Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to a prolific 5,038-yard, 41-touchdown season. Burleson is often considered a stellar decoy for teammate Calvin Johnson, who won the league receiving-yards title with 1,681 (with 16 touchdowns).
Alvin remembers Nate as a small tot, struggling to pick up his Stamps helmet and plop it on his tiny head. In later years, Nate recalls rummaging through Alvin’s equipment, wearing it around the house.
“We’d take pictures of our little guys at McMahon Stadium, dragging around gear and trying it on,” Alvin said. “Even though all four of our sons were involved in sports, football seemed to be Nate’s thing from the beginning. And he feels really proud to have that Canadian connection, too.”
Alvin had been an all-Pacific 8 Conference safety at the University of Washington before the Los Angeles Rams selected him 400th overall in the 1976 NFL draft. He didn’t make the Rams roster, and landed in Calgary. He was a CFL all-star in 1979.
“I admire my dad’s story – when the NFL door closed on him, he went to the CFL and made a great career there, so I knew him as a great Calgary Stampeder,” 30-year-old Nate Burleson said. “I’m not sure I would have appreciated football as I do if not for the path he took and how much he truly loved playing the game.”
Burleson’s talent for football began to shine late in his high-school career, in the Seattle area. He had a successful career at the University of Nevada, Reno, leading the NCAA in catches in his final season, and was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round of the 2003 NFL draft. After stints with the Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, Burleson landed with the Lions in 2010.
Burleson has three brothers, all elite athletes like their father, and collectively they have been called the first family of Seattle sports.
Alvin Jr., 35, played college football at Washington. Kevin, 32, was a guard in the NBA with the Charlotte Bobcats. The youngest, 26-year-old Lyndale, played pro basketball in Europe after his college career at Nevada. (Kevin and Nate make up the only sibling duo besides Cris and Butch Carter to have had one brother in the NBA and another in the NFL.)
The Burleson household was – and still is – full of heated competitions among the brothers and their dad, whether it was pickup basketball, sit-ups, push-ups or bench-pressing contests (in which Alvin Sr. has managed to dominate, even now at 57).
The light-hearted Burleson admits he gets his vocal character from his dad, and his sense of brotherhood from the family. He has jokingly has dubbed himself “Recepticon,” keeping with Johnson’s Transformers-themed nickname, “Megatron.”
“Nate takes over that vocal role – he gets us up before the game,” Johnson said. “Nate gets guys going with words. He’s good at that.”