- Leighton Vander Esch took the NFL by surprise when he stepped in for the injured Sean Lee and never let go of the starting spot. What was his rise like for his parents and the rest of his hometown of Riggins, Idaho?
Fifteen months ago, an SI film crew and I traveled to Riggins, Idaho (population 419) to spend the day with hometown hero Leighton Vander Esch. The soon-to-be Cowboys first-round linebacker took us through town, taught us how to skeet-shoot and shared myriad stories of life down in the rugged canyon, surrounded by the Idaho wilderness. Vander Esch’s parents, dad Darwin and mom Sandy, still live in Riggins, and Vander Esch’s three sisters came into town to make that day a family affair.
Vander Esch looked good on film during his time at Boise State, but his All-Pro caliber rookie season caught almost everyone by surprise. Last fall, I often found myself wondering what it must be like for Darwin and Sandy to see their small-town son, just four years removed from playing eight-man football at Salmon River High, thriving in the glaring spotlight that’s constantly affixed on the Cowboys. So I drove to Riggins and asked them.
Darwin, Sandy, Darwin’s sister Ardys, his mother Christina and I visited in the family’s living room, which is still rich in taxidermy animals—Darwin is a professional hunting guide—and football paraphernalia. Some Boise State items remain, but most of the walls are adorned by Cowboys accoutrements, including Vander Esch’s jerseys from draft night and the Pro Bowl. The famous family bus that the Vander Esch’s drive to games is now half- “orange and blue” (for Boise State) and half- “silver and blue” (for the Cowboys). Darwin and Sandy traveled to nine games this past season and spent most of the other games watching in the Salmon River Inn / Summersville Bar, where all of Riggins gathers to watch the games. (Here’s how the town reacted when Vander Esch was drafted.)
This offseason, Vander Esch and his new wife, Maddy Tucker (a Riggins native), also bought an RV, in which they traveled and lived in for a chunk of this offseason, bringing them closer to wilderness than civilization. It doesn’t matter that Vander Esch bought a house in Riggins shortly after reaching the NFL—“I told him he could certainly stay here with us [in our house],” Darwin says, “and he said ‘No way!’”—because the newlyweds enjoyed the RV.
Part of the RV’s appeal is its privacy from the public eye. “Leighton understands that [dealing with attention] is part of being who he is and part of being successful,” Darwin says. “It’s nice that he can come back here to Riggins and just be himself and enjoy doing the things he enjoyed growing up.”
Vander Esch was propelled into the brightest of spotlights from the get-go. The 2018 draft was held at AT&T Stadium, amidst legions of Cowboys fans. Moments prior to the announcement of Dallas’s pick, the team’s legendary wide receivers Michael Irvin and Drew Pearson, took the stage to hype the crowd. Dallas entered the draft with a major need at wide receiver (remember, Michael Gallup had not yet been selected and Amari Cooper was still a Raider). Irvin and Pearson were revving the crowd with the possibility of a first-round wideout. But by that point, Vander Esch had already been drafted, the selection just had not been announced.
“We were worried that the crowd would be caught off-guard when his name was called,” says Darwin. “They were worried that the fans would be all lathered up for a receiver and then hear some unfamiliar name of a linebacker and start booing.” Sure enough, that’s pretty much how it went. (The fact that the pick was announced by Roger Goodell, who is still disliked by Cowboys fans because of the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, didn’t help.)
The boos, however, did not put much of a damper on the draft for the Vander Esches. The next day, Jerry Jones’s private helicopter flew the family to the team’s facility in Frisco—Leighton’s first ride in a chopper. The Jones family has since taken a liking to the Vander Esches, in part because the Joneses are avid hunters. In fact, hunting was almost the sole thing that Leighton and Jerry Jones talked about in a one-on-one pre-draft meeting. And earlier this year, Stephen Jones even joined Darwin on an eight-day hunting trip in Alaska.
Trips to Alaska have long interfered with Darwin getting to see his son play; parts of football season and hunting season overlap. In Week 2, Darwin even flew overnight from Alaska to Dallas, took in his son’s first NFL home game (a Sunday night win over the Giants), and then immediately flew back to Alaska without even seeing Leighton afterwards. It was a challenge, but one worthwhile, as Darwin’s parents, Christina and Severt, had traveled in from Iowa to see their grandson and to attend their first NFL game. It’s a cherished memory that took on more meaning this spring when Severt, 91, passed away.
Vander Esch played 28 snaps in that Giants game. Two weeks later, his playing time sky-rocketed, as hamstring problems shelved veteran linebacker Sean Lee (whom Darwin and Sandy gush about), pushing the rookie into the starting lineup. Vander Esch never really let go of the first-string job and, by November, Darwin and Sandy were noticing that more and more of the jerseys they saw on fans at games donned 55—Leighton’s number, chosen because its roman numerals, LV, match his initials.
Darwin loves to tell the story of picking up their rental car at the Dallas airport late in the season and the clerk recognizing their name and home state. “He asked if we were related to the Vander Esch kid. We said ‘yep, we’re Mom and Dad. So, are you happy now?’” The clerk admitted that he had indeed been one of the draft night boo-birds and came out from behind the counter to shake their hands and take a selfie.
The whirlwind season came to a sudden end in the Divisional Round playoff loss at Los Angeles, on a night where Dallas’s run defense was atrocious. FOX cameras caught defensive play-caller Kris Richard ripping into his linebackers on the bench, Vander Esch sitting front and center. Darwin and Sandy were at the game and saw the video clip afterwards.
“No problem with it at all,” Darwin says. “There are more players in the NFL that need to be chewed out like that. It’s part of the game.”
The disappointing ending has not overshadowed an otherwise excellent debut season for Vander Esch. And, as Darwin points out, his son has plenty of room to grow. “Just wait until he’s about 28 years old.”
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