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The accidental punt returner
Nate Burleson even becoming a punt returner for the Seahawks was an accident, based on insistence and rooted in injury.
It happened in 2006, when Burleson’s contributions as a wide receiver in his first season with his hometown team where limited after the former three-sport star at O’Dea High School tore a ligament in his right thumb during training camp. Frustrated, Burleson approached coach Mike Holmgren and asked to return punts and kickoffs.
The rest? Well, it’s become part of franchise history. As a result, Burleson has been voted the punt returner on the 35th Anniversary team by readers of Seahawks.com.
|Blue and Green Dream Team|
The Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team, as selected by the readers of Seahawks.com:
“It basically happened by accident,” Burleson said this week from Arizona, where he is working out during this offseason of uncertainty in the NFL. “Due to that thumb injury, I was just trying to make an impact and help out the team.”
His return prowess was not the reason the Seahawks signed Burleson to an offer sheet after he played his first three NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. The intension was that his big-play ability would help ignite the passing game, and Burleson did catch 125 passes for 1,584 yards and 15 touchdowns in 46 games.
But his most memorable plays came as a returner.
“I don’t really think when I got there it was anybody’s idea that I would be a return guy,” Burleson said. “Then once I started playing the position, I really did embrace it. I started to believe in my head that, ‘Hey, I’m one of the better ones in the NFL and I can change the momentum and complexion of each game by some plays that I can make.’
“But at the time, I was just thinking about it almost as a way to get from Point A to Point B – returning kicks while I proved myself as a receiver. So it was almost like a pit stop.”
Before this race car of an athlete reached the point of no more returns with the Seahawks – jumping to the Detroit Lions in free agency last year – Burleson had become the franchise leader in career punt returns (125) and punt returns in a season (58 in 2007), as well as tying a then 32-year-old mark for punt returns in a game (seven in 2009 against the San Francisco 49ers). He also ranks first in return yards for a career (1,288) and season (658 in ’07), and has two of three longest punt returns in club history – a 94-yarder against the Cleveland Browns in ’07, which tied Charlie Rogers’ record that was set in 1999; and a 90-yarder against St. Louis Rams in 2006.
Burleson also returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown during his four-season stay with the Seahawks.
“You put up the production, I guess people are going to respect it,” Burleson said of getting the nod on the reader-selected 35th Anniversary team over Bobby Joe Edmonds, Joey Galloway, Bobby Engram, Paul Jones and Rogers.
But it should never have happened. None of it. Burleson’s insistence, however, won out by wearing Holmgren down.
“Nate came and asked if he could help out by returning punts and kickoffs,” Holmgren said at the time. Cracking the slyest of smiles, he added, “No, he didn’t ask, he insisted.”
Holmgren finally relented in November, and Burleson ran with the opportunity – all the way to being named NFC special teams player of the month after averaging 13.8 yards on 14 punt returns, including that 90-yarder against the Rams; and 25.8 yards on five kickoff returns.
There is one area in the team’s record book where you definitely will not find Burleson’s name: Fair catches. Burleson never met a punt he didn’t think he could return, and some of his more-questionable tries also tried Holmgren’s patience.
Former teammates use the term “fearless” to describe Burleson’s style. But he says there was more to it.
“A lot of the fearlessness came from almost a desperation of trying to make an impact,” Burleson said. “I so desperately wanted to please and prove to my teammates and fans that I am a playmaker and I can be a productive member of this team.
“So that’s where the fearlessness came from. I don’t want to say it was just pure excitement of the moment. It was more or less, ‘Hey, this might be one of my only opportunities to touch the ball today. So I’d better make it memorable.’ ”
His piece-de-resistance play was the 94-yarder against the Browns in Cleveland. Or 200-yarder, to hear Lofa Tatupu recount the mayhem that was Burleson eluding a half dozen would-be tacklers, doing a LeBron James-tribute celebration in the end zone and finally making his way to the Seahawks’ sideline.
“Nate. Just saying his name makes me laugh,” said Tatupu, the middle linebacker on the 35th Anniversary team.
“That Cleveland game. Unbelievable. He’s standing on the 10 (yard line). Rule of thumb: Don’t back up. But Nate backs up. I didn’t know where Holmgren was, but I could hear him yelling. The first guy dives at Nate’s legs and he jumps out of the way. Another guy misses. Nate spins, and I thought he was dead. But he breaks out of the pack and goes. He gets to the end zone, does a little LeBron tribute and then runs to the sideline. So he probably runs 200 yards when you add it all up.”
That’s when things really got interesting, as Burleson put his signature on the situation.
“Most guys would be out of breath,” Tatupu said. “But Nate comes up to me and goes, ‘OK, go out there and stop them again so I can do it again. I’ve got one more in me.’ ”
Tatupu and everyone else had to wait their turn to congratulate Burleson, however, because the first person to “greet” him when he got to the sideline was Holmgren – half happy, half harrumphing.
“Mike came up to me and said, ‘Nate, I hate it when you catch the ball inside the 5-yard line. But, good job,’ ” Burleson said.
“It was one of the weirdest compliments, because he was teaching me while complimenting me. So it was a fun moment. I’ll always remember that.”
And, obviously, always be remembered for that.