While professional athletes can make plenty of money, playing football for a living isn’t a walk in the park. Careers are generally short, and there’s always a risk of injury; even a talented NFL player’s earning power can evaporate in the blink of an eye. Just look at veteran receiver Nate Burleson.
Although he never was an elite receiver, Burleson spent 11 years in the NFL, splitting his time between the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Detroit Lions. His time in the pros, however, came to an end shortly after a bizarre pizza-related injury.
Nate Burleson’s road to the NFL
As the son of a professional football player, athleticism was in Nate Burleson’s blood. His own career on the gridiron, however, didn’t begin as planned.
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nate hoped to follow in his father and older brother’s footsteps and suit up for the University of Washington. Rick Neuheisel, who was the Huskies coach at the time, however, had another idea; he didn’t offer Burleson a scholarship, instead suggesting he could walk onto the squad.
The young receiver, however, wasn’t interested in being a walk-on. He accepted a scholarship to the Univerity of Nevada, instead, swapping the Pacific Northwest for the desert. He went on to spend three seasons for the Wolfpack, racking up 248 receptions for 3,287 yards and 22 touchdowns; most of those numbers came during his final collegiate season, when he pulled in 138 receptions, finding the endzone 12 times.
Finding a niche in the pro level
On the back of that strong 2002 season, Nate Burleson decided to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The Minnesota Vikings selected him in the third round, and the receiver headed to the Twin Cities to start his NFL career.
Burleson’s first season in the pros, was solid if unremarkable, as he pulled in 29 passes for 455 yards. The next campaign, however, was a marked improvement, with the receiver racking up more than 1,000 yards; he also found a niche on special teams, returning kicks and punts. His third season in Minnesota, however, would prove to be his last.
In 2006, Burleson signed an offer sheet with the Seattle Seahawks, returning to his beloved Pacific Northwest. While there were some notable struggles—the receiver posted a poor 2006 campaign and would miss the most of the 2008 season with a torn ACL—he once again found a niche as a reliable number two receiver and an exciting return man.
After four seasons in Seattle, though, the receiver decided to move on. In March 2010, he signed a deal with the Detroit Lions; he played three more solid seasons there before pizza-related tragedy struck.
How a falling pizza interrupted Nate Burleson’s NFL career
In the fall of 2013, Nate Burleson was beginning his fourth campaign with the Detroit Lions. After three regular-season games, however, he was forced to the sidelines by a pizza-based injury.
As detailed by David Roth for SBNation, Burleson and some friends spent a Monday night at Happy’s Pizza & Pub watching some football. The group stayed out until closing time; early on Tuesday morning, the receiver eventually headed home with two pizzas in tow. Those culinary delights, however, would soon prove to be quite the hazard.
At some point during his drive, one of the pizzas started to slide out of its box; while Burleson managed to save the pie—he later noted the offender was deep dish pepperoni—he wasn’t as lucky. His GMC Yukon swerved and hit the median, leaving the receiver with a broken arm that required surgery.
Burleson missed roughly two months of action, returning to play the final six games of the 2013 campaign; he was cut during that offseason and, after breaking his arm again the following preseason, never played in another NFL regular-season game.
While his playing career ended shortly after that injury, Nate Burleson landed on his feet. In addition to receiving a year’s supply of pizza from DiGiorno, he also found a home in the media, appearing on the NFL Network, CBS Sports, and Extra.