It took only a few days for a nail to penetrate a tire on Leighton Vander Esch’s first big purchase as an NFL player. The two-seater Polaris RZR all-terrain vehicle is the perfect ride to scale the mountains in this tiny town he calls home.
But the four-wheeler is useless with three wheels. On this summer day, it sits on a jack just outside Vander Esch’s childhood home.
Most professional athletes would call a road service or take it into a tire shop to get their new toy fixed, but not Vander Esch. Instead, the newest member of the Dallas Cowboys changes it himself in less than a minute and has it back in action.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is a guy who helped his dad, Darwin, build the family’s 1,500-square-foot home in three months on a side of a mountain, part of the 280 acres his family owns.
In a town like Riggins – population 410 – you learn at an early age how to do things on your own. There aren’t many options when it comes to mechanics or contractors. You don’t have a number of plumbers or electricians at your disposal.
“It’s always easier to do it yourself,” Vander Esch said. “Well, it might not necessarily be easier, but it saves money and that’s how we do it here. You learn how to do stuff on your own.”
“My dad’s like, ‘Well, go get a fuel pump and change it in your driveway,’” Vander Esch said. “I was like, ‘All right.’”
This is commonplace for folks living in this picturesque, one-road town that sits in a canyon between two national forests. The Salmon River and Little Salmon River intersect in Riggins.
When you’re tucked away “in the middle of nowhere,” as Vander Esch puts it, there’s no other option. The only reason anyone would find Riggins is if you’re driving across the state of Idaho on I-95, or if you’re an avid hunter or fisherman looking for a remote destination three hours north of Boise.
“When you live in the mountains and you’re in the back country, you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself,” his father said. “If you break down somewhere, you’ve got to learn how to figure out, to change things, fix things, so you can get home. There’s just not somebody who is going to come along to help you. You’ve got to learn how to take care of yourself, be smart out there.”
Growing up in Riggins
This is a town where everybody knows everybody. Most high school graduating classes are between eight and 12 students, sometimes as many as 15 in a “bigger year.” There are just a couple of stores and restaurants down the main road, fittingly called “Main Street.”
It’s a no frills, blue-collar town that has one resident with “rock star” status — Vander Esch.
The local — and only — grocery store proudly has his jersey framed above the entrance.
“We’ve all known him,” one of the store’s employees, Ronda Spickelmire, said. “He was always ambitious. I remember he said he was going to go pro way back in grade school.”
That may have sounded like a pipe dream to most, but it has become a reality and Vander Esch’s roots in Riggins explain why.
Vander Esch has always had a do-it-yourself drive, which burned more every time someone doubted his ability to get to the NFL. After all, he grew up in a tiny town, which plays eight-man high school football.
The odds certainly weren’t in his favor.
“They can doubt me all they want, but just know I’m probably always going to prove you wrong,” said Vander Esch, Salmon River High’s valedictorian his graduating year.
“I’m going to do everything I possibly can to do that ‘cause I’ve dealt with that my whole life.”
The idea that a small-town kid can’t fulfill his athletic dreams is something that still irks Darwin Vander Esch, and he hopes his son becomes the poster child for every kid living in small-town America.
Darwin landed in Idaho during the farm crisis in the 1980s. He grew up in a family of farmers – his granddad settled in Iowa, close to the South Dakota border, after immigrating from Holland – but the crisis forced Darwin to pursue a different career opportunity and a hunting outfitter in Elk River, Idaho, offered him a job.
Darwin eventually opened his own outfitter business in Riggins and also runs a bear and wolf hunting business in Alaska these days.
“I’ve been here 24, 25 years, but I’ve spent at least seven or eight years sleeping in a sleeping bag,” Darwin said, grinning.
This is where he and his wife, Sandy, decided to raise a family, and all of their children had athletic abilities. Three daughters all went on to play college basketball, including Christon who played a year professionally overseas.
‘There’s no quit in him’
Leighton excelled at every sport. He helped Salmon River High School win two state titles in football and basketball his junior and senior seasons, and believes his school had enough baseball talent to win a championship in that sport but there wasn’t enough funding for a program.
But Leighton still faced an uphill battle, becoming a preferred walk-on at Boise State.
“There’s a lot of kids in small-town America that just need a chance,” Darwin said. “Leighton played football in this little town because this is where his mom and dad made a living. It had nothing to do with his athletic ability, or his brains, or his smarts. This is where he went to school because this is where mom and dad are making a living. You can’t hold it against that kid.
“If he’s got some athletic talent and he’s smart and coachable, teach him. That’s all you’ve got to do – teach them. Give them a chance to play. Those kids have heart. They’ve had to do without. They’ve had to climb this mountain. Well, if we’re going to go up there, the only way we’re getting there is walking, OK? It’s not a lot of fun. You’re going to sweat and get sore legs and this and that and work your butt off to get there.
“But we don’t quit. We’re going to finish this and get it done. People have seen that in him. There’s no quit in him.”
That mentality showed through every time he stepped on the football field for Salmon River High. This is a guy who didn’t come out of the game. He played quarterback, linebacker and punter. He excelled at each position.
A former teammate, Charlie Shepherd Jr., played receiver and always knew the ball would be on time and on target.
“He could throw it 50, 60 yards off his back foot and drop a dime,” Shepherd Jr. said. “He just had so much raw talent and athleticism. At linebacker, ‘instincts’ is a great word to use and he just had such a physical presence. When he met someone on the line, he was winning that battle.”
Vander Esch believes he turned a corner between his sophomore and junior year when he grew about 5 inches. That’s when he developed into his body and learned how to utilize it best.
“That’s when I was really like, ‘I can punish dudes now,’” Leighton said. “It just gave me a different mindset. I grew into my feet, I grew into my legs and my arms, so that just changed the whole speed of the game for me.”
Vander Esch became the must-see attraction and even became comfortable enough to audible at the line of scrimmage.
In the state championship game his senior season, Vander Esch and his coach, Charlie Jr.’s father, Charlie Shepherd, still joke about the time he opted to run the ball on fourth-down instead of punting it.
“I was like, ‘I’m not punting this. We don’t punt,’ ” Vander Esch said. “I’m just going to see if I can run it.”
Of course, Vander Esch got the first down and the Savages went on to win the title.
“He kept my record as a coach intact that way ‘cause I’ve coached in five state championship games now, I ended up winning all five, and I have yet to punt,” Shepherd said, smiling. “The punt is the most overused play in football, in my opinion, whatever it’s worth. It’s the easy way out. The coach chooses to punt ‘cause he can’t take the heat if the fourth-down play fails. Well, I’m either able to take the heat or not smart enough to care.
“But Leighton had the good sense and the smarts to make that fourth down play happen. To this day, I’m glad he did.”
‘Baby Giraffe’ to ‘Wolf Hunter’
That became the Dallas Cowboys’ code name for Leighton Vander Esch throughout the pre-draft process after he showed the coaching staff pictures of a March 2017 hunting trip to Alaska in which he harvested two Alaskan gray wolves and a wolverine.
“I’ve got a long name, so they just called me the ‘Wolf Hunter,’ ” Vander Esch said, smiling. “They said that was easy, so it just kind of stuck. A lot of our conversation in our formal interview at the Combine, they asked about the hunting background, what I did in Idaho growing up, and I showed them pictures on my phone and they loved it. It was awesome.
“They got a kick out of it, so just stuck with that and that’s how that came to be.”
Vander Esch hasn’t gotten a nickname from defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli yet, but “Wolf Hunter” could stick around.
Asked if “Wolf” will be replaced by ‘QB’ on Sundays, Vander Esch didn’t hesitate in saying: “Yep.”
But it’s been a long journey for Vander Esch to joining the Cowboys. From his eight-man days at Riggins to being a walk-on at Boise State where he earned a different nickname — ‘Baby Giraffe’ — before becoming one of the best players in college.
“When I walked on to Boise, I was 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, skin and bones,” Vander Esch said. “I didn’t have any muscle definition at all. I looked like a long, lanky giraffe and there was a player who was named Tyler Gray, another linebacker, who was just as tall as I was, but he was more built.
“I guess they called him ‘The Giraffe,’ and I was kind of the new guy and everybody thought we were brothers ‘cause we looked exactly the same. It kind of fit, I guess, but as the years went on and I started putting on more weight, it kind of just faded. But it was a fun nickname.”
Vander Esch emerged last season on the Broncos’ defense, becoming the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year after posting 141 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four forced fumbles.
Nobody on Boise State’s coaching staff was surprised by his rise.
“After his redshirt freshman year, we knew we had something special,” said defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who recruited Vander Esch. “Sophomore year, he was on the rise then got banged up. But we played two Pac-12 teams and I remember the TV media prior to the game doing the sit down production meetings and asking, ‘Who is this No. 38?’ I just started smiling — we’re saying the same things in the team meetings, post game meetings. ‘Damn, 38 played a hell of a game.’ So he was already doing things that were super impressive as a sophomore.
“But Leighton has always been humble and hungry. He has that natural work ethic. He’s been in the grind, been in outdoors, and then that natural strength that needs to be developed. His body was going to develop sooner rather than later, so I think growing up in the mountains has helped Leighton. It’s taught him a lot about how to work and helping him develop.”
Vander Esch has drawn comparisons to another Mountain West standout — New Mexico’s Brian Urlacher, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears.
Much like Vander Esch, Urlacher is a small-town kid who hails from Lovington, New Mexico, a population of about 11,000.
“To have a comparison like that … he’s one of the best, one of the all-time greatest,” Vander Esch said. “I remember growing up watching him play. It was like he just made everybody else look like little kids on the field, him running around and doing what he did in college and playing linebacker in the NFL, that was pretty miraculous.
“It was awesome to see him do that and to now get the comparisons to him is awesome. Then again, those are big expectations to live up to and I want to do just that.”
The next level
Vander Esch hasn’t disappointed to date. He’s lived up to, or exceeded, expectations at every stop. The bright lights of playing for America’s Team haven’t fazed him.
He expects to shine under them and then return to his Idaho roots. He’s thought about getting into real estate after his playing career, but that’s a ways down the road.
For now, he’s just focused on bringing that Idaho grit and wherewithal to the Cowboys. He’s all business, all the time. Vander Esch can’t name a favorite comedy or comedian.
Fun to Vander Esch is driving his four-wheeler around town and up the mountains. It’s playing Fortnite. It’s hunting and fishing and rafting. He worked several years as a river guide, a job that didn’t “even feel like a job.”
“That’s just how we’re wired,” Vander Esch said. “We’re driven individuals. We’re serious. We mean business. I don’t really joke around that much, some probably hate me for it, they probably think I’m a little too serious sometimes, that I need to lighten up, but that’s just who I am.
“I feel like that’s why I’ve gotten to where I am because I haven’t joked around. I’ve taken everything serious, taken the right steps to do so, done everything right. There’s always people who don’t want you to succeed and that drives me even more.
“You see more of that at this level now, people just don’t want to see you succeed, and that lights a fire under me even more. The people who doubt me? It’s like, ‘Not for long.’”
Vander Esch has an entire town behind him, too. He’s become the pride and joy of Riggins.
“I never would’ve imagined the NFL. That was like … amazing,” said Sandy, his mother. “I knew he was always gifted athletically. You compare him to other kids in his class, he was always the fastest, always the most coordinated. Then you have to look at the whole picture since this is just a small town, but I always had a feeling that he was going to [be an athlete].
“Knowing how driven he is and when people just say, ‘You can’t do this,’ that just makes him want to do it all the more.”