It was the morning after the first round of the draft, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son Stephen had just finished an emotional conversation with Jason Witten. The great tight end, a franchise cornerstone for 15 years, was done with football.
As Witten walked away, Jerry and Stephen looked out the windows of their offices at The Star, where the Cowboys work and train. The blades from a helicopter, a white Airbus H145 with a star on the tail, were casting shadows on the practice field as it descended.
Anticipation built around the facility. The team’s first-round draft pick was aboard.
As Leighton Vander Esch stepped off the helicopter into the Texas sun, the moment was not lost on Stephen Jones.
“There’s one 6’5″, light-haired, good-looking guy who loves to play walking out the door,” Jones says. “There’s another one walking in. It was a little eerie, if you will. When we interviewed Leighton, he exuded that kind of character that Jason has.”
The moment was not lost on Vander Esch, either. He was about 1,700 miles from his former home in Riggins, Idaho—and about a billion miles away culturally. He was moving from a place you can barely find on a map to the place where all NFL roads lead. He was stepping into a life of starring for America’s Team, sharing a locker room with Zeke Elliott and Dak Prescott, playing in a stadium with high-kicking Cowgirls, artwork worthy of a museum and video boards that hang like magnificent clouds.
“A huge wake-up moment for me,” he says. “It was like, ‘This is my home?'”
And somehow, he’s not out of place here. Not even a little.
Somehow, he isn’t too far from home in a sprawling metropolis in the Southwest.
Somehow, the expectation of being the next great Cowboy hasn’t gotten to him, either.
Vander Esch is “destined to be one of the all-time greats,” according to Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman.
“You talk about a guy at 255 pounds, and he runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash,” Aikman said on the Thanksgiving national broadcast of Cowboys-Redskins. “He’s big, physical, and he can run, and he matches up against tight ends. I watched him last week match up against Atlanta, and the job he’s able to do, he’s an old-school linebacker in size and new school in his ability to cover and run.”
Vander Esch, a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, isn’t just killing it on the field. The player they call “The Wolf Hunter” is owning the moment, celebrating big plays with a howl.
If everything goes according to the Cowboys’ plan on Saturday, when they host the Seahawks in the wild-card round of the playoffs, howls will be echoing throughout AT&T Stadium.
The town Vander Esch called home, about three hours north of Boise, has a population of 419 people—well, 418 since the April draft. It would take everyone in town, times 239, to fill the stadium he now calls home.
They couldn’t get cellphone coverage in Riggins until Vander Esch was about nine years old. It’s still spotty. He was one of 11 kids in his graduating class from Salmon River High School, where he played eight-man football on a team that sometimes had no more than 12 on the roster.
He and his family—dad Darwin, mom Sandy and older sisters Shannon, Christon and Morgan—lived on about 300 acres in a canyon between two national forests, where the Little Salmon River flows into the Salmon River. From those rivers, Vander Esch reeled in many a meal and earned some spending money as a whitewater rafting guide.
Nearby Seven Devils Mountain was the place for hunting and snowmobiling, and the Vander Esch clan did a lot of both. Darwin owned Heaven’s Gate Outfitters in Riggins, and the kids learned to hunt at the same time as they were learning their ABCs.I
’m not a big fan of the whole “Plan B” thing.
I mean, you hear people all the time be like, “If what I really want to happen doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll go with Plan B.” And I get it. I really do. But sometimes, there’s no room for a Plan B, you know? Sometimes in life it’s just gotta be Plan A or bust.
Like: No alternatives. One path. Period.
That was definitely my mindset growing up (more on that in a bit), and — now that I think about it — that do-or-die, go-for-broke mentality is one this Cowboys team ended up adopting earlier in the season.
Flashback to about five weeks ago.
We’re sitting there at 3–5, coming off an ugly loss on Monday night to the Titans. It seems like maybe our shot at the playoffs is slipping away. Everything’s just … bad. We still believed in each other at that point, of course, but our record wasn’t what we needed it to be. There’s only so many games in a season. And halfway through, it was just not looking good for us. At all.
So we show up at the facility, and Coach Garrett sits us all down in the team room.
He doesn’t beat around the bush. He just puts it out there.
“There’s no margin for error now,” he tells us, with this fired-up look in his eye. “We got ourselves into this position. And now it’s up to us to get us out of it.”
Our season was on the line. Backs against the wall. The only option out there was to win the rest of our games.
That was it. There wasn’t an alternative route.
It wasn’t like we could somehow lose a few more games and just bank on the Redskins and Eagles losing some too.
We’re 3–5. We need to go out and win all of our games now. That’s what he’s telling us.
And sitting there, in that meeting, you could tell guys were hearing him. There was just a certain vibe in that room, you know what I mean? Like guys were fully realizing that our season was at a critical point.
Then Coach spent a bunch of time talking from the heart about adversity, and fighting through, and how the only way to get beyond tough times is to put your head down and push forward. I guess sometimes that stuff can come off as corny or whatever, but that whole moment — the talk, the realness of it all, the whole do-or-die thing — it all just really resonated.
We totally bought in, each and every one of us. We were all just like, “He’s right. This is on us. We gotta to get through this and not have this bad start define our season.”
And, I don’t know, it’s almost like this team has been on a mission ever since.
Now, five weeks later, we’re 8–5. We’ll be going for our sixth straight win this coming weekend.
Do or die. No alternatives. No Plan B’s.
Just go out and do what you need to do. Period.
And, man, I gotta say … this so fun right now.
Just flying around. Hitting people. Making plays.
I’m loving every minute of this, that’s for sure — just living in the moment, and having the time of my life. And this run we’ve been on has definitely made my rookie season in Dallas even more incredible than I could’ve ever imagined.
By now I guess a lot of football fans have heard my story: Small-town Idaho kid, no 11-on-11 football team in high school, too skinny to get any Division I offers, had to walk on at Boise … all that stuff. Cowboys fans are probably sick of hearing it at this point. And it does kind of get old after a while talking about those same things over and over again. (Hopefully, after a little time, my play on the field will speak for itself, and people will focus on that more than on how much I weighed in high school or how many people live in my hometown.)
Leighton Vander Esch’s family home rests on a flat patch of land carved into the side of a mountain. Seven Devils Road juts west off Highway 95 and marks the southern border to Riggins, Idaho, the town about three hours north of Boise where Vander Esch was raised. Before Leighton’s father, Darwin, used an industrial bulldozer to fashion a driveway into these hills, no lot existed. The address is their own creation.
In all, the property encompasses 300 acres. At the top of the mile-long road, up a treacherous incline, lies a small clearing that overlooks all of Riggins. Every sight from Vander Esch’s youth is visible from this perch. There’s the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, home to the area’s best fishing holes. There’s Shorts Bar, a small beach with impossibly fine sand where he’d take half-day rafting trips. In the distance, the mountain peaks that hosted hunting camps dominate the skyline. Riggins is nestled into a canyon between two national forests, and is hardly the sort of place known for producing premium NFL talent. When Carson Wentz entered the league two years ago, the Eagles quarterback was seen as a small-town boy stepping into the spotlight. Wentz’s hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota, has a population of 72,417. Riggins has a grand total of 406.
On Thursday night, Vander Esch is set to become a first-round pick in the NFL draft, capping a story as unlikely as any in this year’s class. With no starts to his credit by his third year at Boise State, he headed into the 2017 season as an unknown to NFL evaluators. Following a campaign that included 141 tackles, fifth in the FBS, he has risen up draft boards faster than any other player.
As an eight-man-football star at Salmon River High School, Leighton had no guarantee that his name would even make it to the coaching staff in Boise. But after he led the Savages to four combined state titles in two sports, tales of his greatness trickled out of the canyon and into the valley. He came to college as a curiosity, a piece of folklore that had descended down the mountain. He left as a revelation. After turning heads with an otherworldly performance at this year’s combine, the linebacker has become the subject of widespread scouting fascination, the prospect equivalent of Paul Bunyan.
As he prepares for the next step, he knows that people will question the veracity of his feats. For a kid from Riggins, Idaho, it’s nothing new. “That’s what it will always be,” Vander Esch says. “I had that small-school atmosphere at Boise. Everyone wants to doubt it. You never get away from it: Are you still going to be good enough?”
The sign outside River Rock Cafe, Vander Esch’s favorite breakfast spot, is one of the many tributes to him around town. “Go Leighton,” it reads on a cloudless morning in late March. “All the way to the NFL.” As Vander Esch folds his 6-foot-4 frame into a booth near the window, owner Kim Olson walks over to greet him. “I’m glad I didn’t miss you,” Olson says. “I had to leave yesterday, and I told the girls, ‘OK, I want a phone call if [Leighton] comes in. I want to know what’s happening.’”
When the cafe opened in 2007, Riggins was abuzz. This is a place where Main Street is the only street that runs through town, and any addition causes a significant stir. Rumors swirled last summer that a brand-new grocery store was replacing the pothole-filled parking lot in the middle of Riggins. A year later, Vander Esch still can’t believe that his town has Whitewater Market, its own miniature version of an Albertsons. “It’s the nicest store that we’ve ever, ever had,” he says, still with an air of disbelief.
Everyone knows everyone around here, has some bond connecting the threads of their lives. Olson’s son, Jake Manley, was a senior fullback at Salmon River High when Vander Esch was a freshman. By then, Savages head coach Charlie Shepherd Sr. had known Vander Esch for years. Growing up, Leighton was inseparable with Shepherd’s two boys, Charlie Jr. and Jimmy, and Leighton started filming varsity football games in the third grade. Shepherd had long imagined that the team would thrive once Vander Esch and his sons got to high school, so he slotted Leighton in as a starting outside linebacker as a shrimpy 140-pound freshman. There was no question about Vander Esch’s athletic ability; the concern was his tendency to run around blocks instead of barreling straight through them.
To indoctrinate the 5-foot-10 15-year-old to the rigors of varsity football, Shepherd pitted Vander Esch against Manley in every drill imaginable. With Leighton giving up three years and 40 pounds, practices turned into one-sided affairs. “He would just run me over, run me over, and run me over,” Vander Esch says.