What to Know
- Leighton Vander Esch was the Dallas Cowboys' first round pick, and 19th overall, during the 2018 NFL Draft.
- Vander Esch signed a four-year contract that is reportedly worth $11.847 million with a $6.696 million signing bonus.
- Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard gave Vander Esch the nickname "Wolf Hunter" before the NFL Draft.
Riggins is Idaho's "Whitewater Capital." The town with a population of 410 is also home to Dallas Cowboys' first-round NFL Draft pick linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
"Everybody knows everybody," Vander Esch said. "Whether that's good or bad, the support system is amazing here in the community of Riggins and I know they've had a lot to do with my success."
Vander Esch's success has surprised just about everyone but the people who saw him play under the lights at Salmon River High School.
"One of the opposing parents came to me and congratulated me and said, 'You know when Vander Esch was out there it looked like a high school kid running around playing against junior high kids,'" said Salmon High School coach Charlie Shepherd.
Vander Esch's dominance led Salmon River High School to two 8-man football state championships and two more state titles in basketball, drawing the attention of the Boise State University football coaching staff.
Boise State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Andy Avalos remembered his visit to Vander Esch's high school.
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"I looked back at the secretary and I said, 'Is this the high school?' And she starts smiling and she says, 'It's K through 12. We're not big enough to have different schools.' And so I started laughing and I look over at a little girl and I said, 'Do you know Leighton Vander Esch?' and she said, 'Yup.' And she said 'He's awesome. He's one of the best people here,' you know, so I was like 'Alright, the 4th-grader jumped on the table for him, so he's got a shot,'" Avalos said with a smile.
Boise State offered Vander Esch the opportunity to walk on, an opportunity he embraced. He surpassed low expectations during his freshman season, that is, until it was time to pack up and head home for the summer.
"Leighton was going to go back home, he was going to do whitewater rafting to make money so he could go back to school again. So his job was going to be guiding, so he was going to miss workouts so he could go home and guide, make some money and come back and use that money to go to school," said Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin. "You know we all liked him as a person, and here was this kind of financial need, where if we don't do this right now and take advantage and put this guy on a scholarship, he may not develop into something that we think he can become. And we put him on scholarship, he was very grateful for it, took advantage of it and made the most of it."
Keeping Vander Esch away from the rapids and instead on the blue turf playing at Boise State ended up being a wise decision by the Broncos coaches. Vander Esch became a captain at Boise State, and in his 2017 junior season made 141 tackles.
"You know a lot of parents all say, 'Well, my kid can do this,' but Leighton worked hard to get to that point. It's like he finally made it," said Leighton's father, Darwin Vander Esch.
And "making it" at Boise State led to the Dallas Cowboys making Vander Esch their first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
"It was miraculous, the most amazing feeling ever, seeing Dallas, Texas pop up on your phone. Waiting for that call, it was, it was amazing," Leighton Vander Esch said.
His mom, Sandy, said it's been a whirlwind.
"I don't think it actually will sink in until I actually see him out there with a Dallas Cowboys uniform on and with the other players. It probably won't sink in until then," she said. "Being the mom of a Dallas Cowboy is amazing."
Amazing -- just like Vander Esch's journey from the 8-man football field, to the blue turf at Boise State, to America's Team. Vander Esch is ready to make his hometown proud on football's biggest stage.