Darwin Vander Esch made sure to pack the wolf hide.
It likely wouldn’t have traveled too well on commercial airlines, so it had to come aboard the Vander Esch Express’ maiden voyage to Texas this weekend.
What’s the Vander Esch Express?
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It’s a converted 1992 MCI Coach bus that used to haul passengers from an Amtrak station to Disneyland in Southern California that is now hauling Vander Esch family and friends to Leighton’s football games across the country.
His parents, Darwin and Sandy, brought the bus to Texas for the first time this weekend, departing from their remote hometown of Riggins, Idaho last Monday. It was a 1,835-mile trek across the country for the ultimate DFW sports weekend.
Texas Motor Speedway rolled out the red carpet for the Vander Esch’s this weekend, including sitting atop Todd Gilliland’s pit box for Friday’s truck race and suite seats for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500.
And, on Monday, the Vander Esch Express will head to Arlington’s AT&T Stadium for the Cowboys-Titans game where Leighton is a budding star for America’s Team.
“It’s been great so far,” said Darwin, the driver and mastermind behind the bus wrapped in decals of Leighton’s college days at Boise State and images from the NFL Draft last spring when the Cowboys selected him with the 19th overall pick.
“The drive took right at 30-32 hours. We get a lot of people taking pictures of the bus, honking at us, slowing down and checking it out. A couple guys yesterday said, ‘Hey, Leighton’s mom and dad, thanks for sending us your son.’ I’m like, ‘Thank Jerry Jones for that one.’”
Darwin joked, though, that not everyone appreciates the Cowboys logo. After all, the Cowboys are one of the most polarizing franchises in sports. Much like the Yankees or Lakers, casual fans either love them or hate them.
“We’ll get a thumbs down once in a while,” Darwin said, laughing. “Somebody who doesn’t like the Cowboys. We passed a car with three boys in the back and they’re looking at the bus and I wave to them, give them a thumbs up. Two of them wave back and give a thumbs up and the other boy gives a thumbs down. There’s always one in a group.”
Fans interested in seeing the bus in person can check it out before the Cowboys’ game at Bill Bates Ultimate Tailgate (816 N Collins Street, Arlington) on Monday. It’s part of the Vander Esch’s pride and joy.
Darwin purchased the bus for $14,000 and has spent time and money to convert it into a livable RV with a full bathroom, four beds, a propane stove and a refrigerator. It had 590,000 miles on it and now has 610,000 -- 20,000 miles spent taking family and friends across the country to watch Leighton play football.
The bus made numerous trips from Riggins to Boise, about a three-hour drive. It’s gone to the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix and the Las Vegas Bowl. It hauled the Vander Esch’s to a family reunion in Iowa this past summer, and up to Seattle for the Cowboys-Seahawks game on Sept. 23.
The latest trip to Texas is the longest the Express has made with Darwin behind the wheel. They stopped in Colorado to have dinner with a former client who took hunting trips with Darwin; had a chilly night’s sleep outside of Raton, New Mexico; and eventually landed in the Metroplex.
“It wasn’t bad at all. It drives really nice,” Sandy said. “Darwin is a good driver. We’ve had no issues with it at all.”
The Vander Esch’s will fly back to Idaho on Tuesday, leaving the bus in Texas with a family friend. It’ll be a staple at a couple more Cowboys games this season with several family and friends planning to return for the Thanksgiving Day game and/ or the Dec. 9 game against Philadelphia.
But this weekend will stand out with the TMS festivities and MNF. Leighton was able to join his parents for the truck race and Xfinity Series race on Friday and Saturday, but the schedule didn’t work out for him to get to the Cup race on Sunday.
Leighton, like everyone else around Gilliland’s team on Friday night, felt awful when the truck ran out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap that cost Gilliland a possible win.
“Sitting on top of the pit box was amazing,” Sandy said, “But him running out of gas was so disappointing. I know Leighton was disappointed for him, just feeling so bad for him.”
With the NASCAR portion in the books, it’s now on to football.
Leighton is having an impressive rookie season, leading the team in tackles with 65, according to the coach’s breakdown. He also has one QB pressure, one tackle for loss and one pass defended.
That’s the type of production the Cowboys were hoping for from “The Wolf Hunter,” a nickname given to Leighton for pictures he showed the coaching and front office staff of a March 2017 hunting trip in which he harvested two Alaskan gray wolves and a wolverine.
“Leighton’s told us, ‘All I have to do is worry about football,’” Darwin said. “And he’s concentrated solely on the game. His ultimate goal is to get a Super Bowl ring, as many as possible.”
If the Cowboys reach a Super Bowl, it’s a safe bet the Vander Esch Express won’t be far away.