Dallas Cowboys

Leighton Vander Esch talks about ‘crazy journey’ to Pro Bowl, future with Jaylon Smith

Rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch on being at Pro Bowl: ‘It’s a pretty crazy journey huh’

Rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch on being at Pro Bowl: It's a pretty crazy journey huh
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Rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch on being at Pro Bowl: It's a pretty crazy journey huh

Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is out here living the dream that he always had for himself.

And he is enjoying every minute of it in Orlando at the Pro Bowl this week.

How could he not?

He played eight-man football in high school in Riggins, Idaho. He walked on at Boise State and started just one season before declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft where he was shockingly picked in the first round by the Cowboys.

He would go on to lead the team with a rookie-record 176 tackles and was tabbed as a Pro Bowl replacement for Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.

“It’s a pretty crazy journey huh,” said a smiling Vander Esch on Wednesday following the first day of practices at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports before Sunday’s Pro Bowl. “I don’t know if I expected it to come this fast. I always expected myself to be in the shoes that I am in now. One way or another, I knew I was going to get here. I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me that I couldn’t do it.

“I have been battling my entire life proving people wrong. You know how people are. They are negative in life. They don’t want to see you succeed. There are some that do. But there are a whole bunch of people against you. So you got to take that to heart. If you have a goal you are not going to let anybody tell you you can’t do it.”

Vander Esch was like a giddy kid on Wednesday as he lined up next to his Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, his linebacker idol growing up.

“It makes me smile. It’s almost like I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. It’s crazy. I grew up watching him. I followed him on Instagram as soon as I got Instagram. I followed him on Twitter as soon as I got Twitter. He was one of the first guys that I really really followed throughout my whole football journey. And now to get to play with him and talk to him. I traded jerseys with him after the playoff game. The guy is awesome. I love him.”

He gushed similarly about Kuechly.

“Those two guys were the main dudes I always watched,” Vander Esch said. “It’s a privilege to be able to stand in here in Luke’s place and play for him. I have a lot of respect for him. Obviously, you have big shoes to fill when you fill in for a guy like that. So you got to go do it.”

But it was his teammate Jaylon Smith, the linebacker he lined up next two all season in the Cowboys defense, that he thought most about on Wednesday.

Smith was second on the Cowboys in tackles and was also named an alternate for the Pro Bowl.

Maybe they will get to return as teammates in the future. But what he knows is the future is bright for him and Smith in the middle of the Cowboys defense.

“We sit and talk about it,” Vander Esch said. “I know it eats at him that he is not here. We love playing football and that’s the nature we have. We are going to out here and do everything we can to be successful. I think that we realize if we stay together and we play together and have a close relationship through everything that is going it’s going to be long successful careers for both of us. And we are going to have fun doing it.

“The dude is a fantastic athlete. He is a freak. He is going to keep fighting every single game. To be able to do that along with him and be able to play and feed off each other is awesome.”

Vander Esch acknowledged that their youth probably got to them in the 31-22 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Divisional playoffs when they gave up 273 yards rushing.

It’s an experience they hope to learn from and never let happen again.

Vander Esch said the entire Cowboys defense has the same attitude and it has him excited about the future.

“We are a young group,” Vander Esch said. “We love to fly around making plays and playing fast, playing with each other. We all love playing football. That is the fun part. The sky is the limit for us. We got to keep building. And keep making big jumps.”

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Clarence E. Hill Jr. has covered the Dallas Cowboys as a beat writer/columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1997. That includes just two playoff wins, six coaches and countless controversies from the demise of the dynasty teams of the 1990s through the rollercoaster years of the Tony Romo era until Jason Garrett’s process Cowboys.