By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – In this day and age, is there anyone who can really say he has never been guilty of taking his eyes off the road for something that is completely trivial?
Answering a phone. Turning the dial on the radio. Twisting around to grab something from the backseat. Texting. Eating and trying to pick up the crumbs that fall. Reaching over to the passenger side to grab something before it skids to the floor.
For Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson, the distraction was deep-dish pepperoni pizza.
“Multi-tasking. I’ll be honest with you – I’m the king of that,” Burleson said. “Well, I was. Plugging in my phone, reaching for something, and I had some pizzas sitting in my passenger seat. They started to slide.”
Talking to the media for the first time since his 2:25 a.m. one-car accident on I-696 Tuesday, Burleson offered no excuses for his poor judgment that night, the same kind that so many people display daily.
“The multi-tasking and driving, it’s no joke,” Burleson said. “I’ve done it a lot. I was talking to my wife. I said, ‘This is the last. When I’m doing something, I’m going to be either stopped or I’ll do it before I get moving,’ because it becomes habit-forming, and for me that habit – bad habit – could have cost me my life.”
The highway crash happened when Burleson was on his way back from Happy’s Pizza after watching Monday Night Football. He had just gotten on the freeway and was heading home when he saw the falling pizza box out of the corner of his eye.
“I glanced over and saw it sliding forward, tried to do the one-handed grab, and once I looked up, felt like I was pressing on a vehicle [in front of me],” Burleson explained. “Out of reaction, turned the car but hit the brakes at the same time. Car kind of fishtailed, and boom boom, overcorrected and slammed right into the wall. I don’t even know how close I was to the car. Maybe I didn’t even have to do all that, but just panicked.”
As ludicrous as it might seem to get in a wreck over pizza, it could have been worse in many ways. A leader of the Lions, Burleson had not been drinking that night. As he joked, he only had pizza on his breath.
Even as Burleson takes the pizza references and laughs at them himself, using his trademark humor and still looking at ease as always, he certainly recognizes the seriousness of what could have happened.
“That was scary, man,” Burleson said. “I’ve driven and multi-tasking, whether I’m text messaging or doing something, and then look up and I’m thinking, ‘How long was I not looking at the road?’ At that moment when I got out of the car, I was like, ‘That’s the last time I’m ever going to touch my phone or touch any device while I’m driving.’ I’m just speaking to myself. I don’t know how many people really do it.”
The answer, as I would imagine that few would dispute, is that people drive distracted all the time.
Burleson, though, was fortunate, and what-ifs aside, he is now focused on getting back on the field for the Lions.
Doctors performed Burleson’s surgery Wednesday, and by Friday Burleson was back at the Allen Park practice facility, answering questions from media and hanging out in the locker room, teammates coming by often to welcome him back.
Coming off his best statistical performance as a Lion – 116 yards receiving against Washington – it crushed Burleson to have to start from scratch. Going from the highest high to the lowest low, he said, is an apt description of the swing of emotions.
“The first thing I thought of was my guys and the season, and I’m not an emotional guy, man, but I was damn near tears,” Burleson said, “just coming off a good game and knowing just the rhythm that the offense had, Calvin, myself and Matt, having to hit the reset button. And then you start thinking about the positives. Nothing happened to my lower body. We’ve got young guys who are in place. As long as these guys are right and healthy, I can come back in the tail end of the season having fresh legs, ready to rock and roll.”
By the time Burleson met with media Friday afternoon, he had already been working on the bike, and he squeezed a tennis ball in his hand continuous to keep his strength up. With a long injury history, Burleson is involuntarily accustomed to rehabilitating, and he also has a history of healing more quick than expected.
“Even today, I haven’t taken any pain medication, moving it around quite a bit, getting most of my strength back,” Burleson said. “All these are good signs of what’s to come as far as the healing process.”
“I’m doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t be doing at this point,” Burleson added. “That means my body’s responding, muscles are firing, so I don’t want to throw no numbers out there, but I’ll be back sooner than I think a lot of people expect.”
In the meantime, Burleson will still be plenty involved with the team. He said he will be doing as much coaching as they let him, and he plans to be standing on the sidelines, rallying his troops, for Sunday’s game against Chicago.
Burleson plans to be particularly vocal with his group of wide receivers, helping the younger players learn as they take on augmented roles because of Burleson’s injury.
“I’ve got to stay on top of them,” Burleson said. “I’ve got to put enough pressure on them to where when they get in the game they don’t feel the pressure of the 60 minutes. Pat [Edwards], [Ryan] Broyles, [Chris] Durham has been playing well. They’ve got to just embrace the role, like I have. Embrace the fact that you’re a complimentary player, you’ll get a few opportunities, and make sure those opportunities are big. Make them big moments. Just because it’s one or two catches doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be a splash play. Look at Durham in the last game he played in. I think he only had a couple catches, but one of them was huge.
“That’s the mindset that they have to have,” Burleson added, “and they can’t lean on the fact that Calvin has to make every play, make sure they’re ready for every opportunity that comes their way.”