Leighton Vander Esch Was Born to Be a Cowboy

He was booed in Big D on draft day, but after he stepped into Sean Lee's cleats, led the Cowboys in tackles and got them back into the playoffs, fans are calling him "The Wolf Hunter" and howling right along with him
photo of Dan PompeiDan PompeiNFL ColumnistFRISCO, TexasJanuary 4, 2019

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."

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 05:  Dion Lewis #33 of the Tennessee Titans tries to hold off Leighton Vander Esch #55 of the Dallas Cowboys on a run in he fourth quarter of a football game at AT&T Stadium on November 5, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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.

Black bear, elk, deer, doves, chukar, quail, grouse, turkey. And, of course, wolf (Idaho is one of three states where wolf-hunting is legal). There isn't much Vander Esch hasn't brought home. He hasn't yet bagged a mountain lion, but Christon and Morgan have.

Christon, whose married name is Medley, concedes Leighton is the best hunter of the siblings. He's also the best athlete, even though all three sisters were college basketball players and Christon played professionally in Luxembourg.

The truth is Leighton is good at everything. He played four years of varsity basketball at Salmon River and was the star on two state championship teams. He was so good at snowmobiling that he might have made the X Games.

When his father decided they needed a smaller house after Leighton's sisters left the nest, Darwin and Leighton built it themselves on a mountain ledge. Father and son laid the foundation, then, nail by nail, beam by beam, they did everything from the roofing to the plumbing.

"We're still trying to find out if there's something he can't do," Christon says.

The first weekend of every May, there is ranch bull riding, calf roping, wild cow milking and more at the Riggins Rodeo. There are competitions for kids, too. Little Leighton dominated the stick horse races. He also excelled at mutton busting—riding a sheep as long as you can. At another rodeo, he was a ringer in the calf chase, in which about 30 kids run after a young cow to try to untie a ribbon from its tail.

Cowboying came naturally to him.

And even though he came from a small town, Vander Esch had big dreams. When he was three or four years old, he started telling people he planned on playing in the NFL. And he never had a backup plan.

He was undeterred when "hundreds" of people tried to tell him the NFL was a pipe dream. "It just pissed me off and lit a fire under me even more," he says.

He was undeterred when he had to walk on at Boise State. He made the team, and it took him just nine months to earn a scholarship, though he hadn't played a game yet.

Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

He was undeterred when AT&T Stadium was filled with boos after the Cowboys selected him with the 19th overall pick in the draft.

Vander Esch spent his life in the mountains, and he learned how to move them.

One topic took up most of the time in predraft meetings between Vander Esch and Cowboys executives, scouts and coaches: wolf hunting. When Vander Esch showed them a photo of him with a wolf kill, they were fascinated.

Some draft prospects are swallowed by the personal side of the evaluation process. They shrink in interviews. Vander Esch, the now-22-year-old who grew up on the side of a mountain, was as impressive in interviews as he was on tape.

"I was blown away," Stephen Jones says. "The big thing was his confidence. When he walked in, he had a presence. He never blinked in the interviews. He felt right at home—big smile, talking ball."

Initial expectations were modest for a linebacker who had played only 32 games of 11-man football in his life. The thinking was he could be a backup and special teams player as a rookie and develop into an eventual replacement for Sean Lee.

But Vander Esch didn't see it that way. The moment he opened the Cowboys playbook, shortly after being selected, he was confident he could make a quick transition, in part because the Cowboys defensive system was similar to the one he played in at Boise State.

"On the first snap in OTAs, it was like, OK, the O-line is a little quicker," he says. "Now I'm playing against 11 great players instead of just one or two in college. Once that registered, it was like nothing changed from college. My instincts, preparation, hard work and ability just took over."

On the surface, playing eight-man football in high school would seem to be a disadvantage. But for Vander Esch, it has been a benefit. "In eight-man, you have to be able to make plays in space, and that helps with the way the NFL is turning with more spread offense, more passing, Air Raid," he says.

"I never came off the field in high school. You had to be in shape. You had to be able to play when you are tired. Being able to open-field tackle when you are tired, and staying disciplined added to my instincts."

Vander Esch began the season as a backup. He started his first game Sept. 30, and he has started 10 more since. He finished the regular season as the Cowboys' leading tackler with 140, 18 more than the next-closest teammate.

A proud Cowboys linebacker tradition goes back nearly six decades. Lee, an old pro who has made a career out of doing everything the right way, understands he is a part of something that's bigger than what's happening now. He owns a piece of Cowboys history, just like Chuck Howley, Hollywood Henderson, Lee Roy Jordan and Ken Norton Jr.

"It's amazing being his teammate," Vander Esch says. "A once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Lee embraced the rookie who looked up to him. He began mentoring Vander Esch before OTAs even began, meeting almost every day and going over plays on the dry-erase board. Vander Esch's locker is next to Lee's. He sits with him in every meeting. He stands next to him on the practice field.

Cowboys linebackers Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.
Cowboys linebackers Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

Lee has taught him the big things, like how to prepare over the course of a week, how to stay fresh over the grind of a season and how to stay grounded in the vortex of celebrity. And he's taught him the little things, too, like how to cheat on alignments and how to distinguish his keys in different situations.

And, ultimately, Lee has taught him how to step aside with grace. Lee's hamstring injuries opened the door for Vander Esch, and Vander Esch blitzed through it, taking his job.

"I see him like a little brother, so I want to see somebody like that who has great character succeed," Lee says. "You want to help him any way you can. He deserves it."

Lee might be the mentor, but he's not the most common comparison. Vander Esch and Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher are the same height and approximate weight, and Vander Esch was just a tick slower in the 40-yard dash (4.65 to 4.57). Urlacher has a similar background, coming from rural Lovington, New Mexico.

"He's like Brian in his ability to play in space—the hips, the turn, the awareness," says Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who coached Urlacher for four years. "It's rare for a guy who has that size to be able to play in space. And the game is so much in space right now. You can't teach that. They are both very bright, and the humility is the same. He's a great teammate, just like Brian."

Of course he's a great teammate. Vander Esch understands the strength the pack gives to the wolf. He also realizes that a football team, like a wolf pack, operates on a hierarchy.

Every morning, Vander Esch arrives at The Star about 20 minutes before meetings begin, at 6:40, and prepares three canisters of coffee for the veterans and coaches in the kitchenette adjacent to the meeting rooms on the second floor. He makes each canister a different strength to please all tastes.

After every game, he makes sure a fresh towel is in every teammate's locker stall.

It's part of being a rookie first-round pick, but it's also part of who he is.

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 14:  Leighton Vander Esch #55 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"He's approached things the right way," Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie says. "He listened a lot in the beginning. He waited his turn. Then he got his shot after Sean got hurt, and he became that vocal guy. I have the utmost respect for that guy."

The Cowboys were protecting a seven-point lead against the Eagles with 2:07 left in a November game. Before the snap, Vander Esch stalked running back Corey Clement as if he knew a screen pass was going to head his way. Quarterback Carson Wentz dropped back, and center Jason Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks bolted to their right, straight for Vander Esch. With a deft angle, he got past both and grabbed Clement by the ankle with one hand for a loss of five.

The play took the life from the Eagles. Vander Esch is at his best when the kill is near—when those hunting instincts kick in.

A good hunter is aware of everything—the direction of the wind, the scent in the air, the phase of the moon, the snap of the twig. He makes note of any clutter that could come between him and his target. He knows every landmark.

A good linebacker is aware of everything, too—the pad level of the uncovered guard, the quiver in the quarterback's snap count, the widening of the wide receiver's eyes just before contact, the way his cleats grip the earth beneath him. He makes note of any clutter that could come between him and his target. He knows every landmark.

Yes, Vander Esch will tell you, there are similarities in the disciplines.

"You have to be able to use your instincts in both," he says. "When you are trying to make a tackle, you have to think as if you were the ball-carrier. Trying to hunt, you think what the animal would do in this situation. What would be their next move? It's the same as football."

In some ways, Vander Esch is doing the same things he's always done. In other ways, life is very different.

Instead of taking Main Street and Seven Devils Road, speed limit 25 mph, he's traversing the Dallas North Tollway and the Sam Rayburn Tollway, speed limit what difference does it make?

In Dallas, the bus that represents his team is Jerry Jones' Elegant Lady—luxury on wheels. It's reportedly worth $2 million and includes nine televisions, mahogany wood, electronic shades, secret ice boxes, a mobile office, a 24-karat gold football and Cowboys logos everywhere. When it's parked, the interior can be widened by a foot, and an awning can be extended. "It's really something," says Vander Esch, who has been on the Elegant Lady numerous times for team events.

In Riggins, it was the Vander Esch Express, a 1992 MCI coach bus that, in a previous life, transported passengers from a train station to Disneyland. Since Darwin purchased it for $14,000, the Vander Esch Express has been tricked out with bunk beds, a stove, a refrigerator and an expanded bathroom. Last year, it made its maiden voyage in the parade down Main Street to kick off the Riggins Rodeo.

The Vander Esch Express still rolls. It spent most of the football season in the Dallas area, as the family used it to tailgate at Cowboys games.

The core of Vander Esch remains the same. His first big purchase after signing his contract was an all-terrain vehicle for getting around in the mountains.

One day, Lee noticed Vander Esch was agitated.

"What are you mad about?" Lee asked.

Vander Esch: "I ordered a part for a snowmobile, and they sent me the wrong part."

Lee: "Snowmobile problems, man. Who has snowmobile problems?"

Someone from rural Idaho has snowmobile problems.

"I'll always love Idaho and will always go back to where I grew up," Vander Esch says. "But I'm enjoying life so much right now, living the actual dream I've set my highest goal for my entire life. I'm having the best time of my life."

There is no place on this blue planet he would rather be than where he will be Saturday, with an opportunity to do something worth howling about.

In a November game against the Saints, Vander Esch tackled Mark Ingram for a loss of one on a critical 3rd-and-2. Then he stepped forward, tilted his head back, put his hands around his mouth and howled. His teammates howled too. The crowd at AT&T joined in. Then fans in bars, in their dens and living rooms all started howling.

Teammates had been encouraging Vander Esch to develop a signature celebration. Wolves howl to defend their territory. This was perfect.

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

"I wish I came up with that," Awuzie says. "Fans love it. We love it as teammates. When we know he's about to do it, we all start howling. It gets us all hyped."

It is a sound Vander Esch knows well.

On a wolf hunt, the first task is to search for tracks and identify travel patterns. Once the hunter suspects there are wolves in the area, he howls. If he is on the money, there will be a return howl. He can answer back like a lone wolf, or try to sound like a pair of wolves. The idea is to try to induce a sly, shy animal to come to him.

"Wolf hunting is an extreme adrenaline rush, an absolute blast," Vander Esch says. "It's different from hunting for elk and deer. They are an animal to us, and we are an animal to them. They are hard to hunt because they are so intelligent. Some animals have better senses than others—sight, hearing, smell—wolves have it all."

He feels completely alive when he looks through the sight, gets a glimpse of that magnificent animal with the fluffy coat and thick tail and begins to pressure the cold trigger with his forefinger.

The senses become heightened.

The hairs on the back of the neck rise.

The heart beats faster.

It is a feeling that only can be duplicated on a football field, with a chilling howl that all of Dallas bellows with him.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.


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