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Offseason | 2024

LVE pens emotional retirement letter to Cowboys


FRISCO, Texas — There can be no doubt that Leighton Vander Esch is experiencing a flood of emotion as he officially announces his retirement from the NFL, and at the young age of 28, due to a medical issue stemming from his latest neck injury suffered in October of last season — one that led to a failed physical with the Dallas Cowboys in March.

Vander Esch, lovingly dubbed "Wolf Hunter" by the Cowboys' fandom who enjoyed letting out the occasional howl whenever the former Boise State linebacker would make a highlight play, penned a heartfelt letter to the team, fans and the league that gave him a chance in 2018.

It's one that's been months in the making.

"Today is a difficult day for me, but it is also a day of reflection and gratitude. Playing for the Jones Family, Coach Garrett, McCarthy, Marinelli, Richard, DQ, Bloom, George, AD, and Scotty have been the best days of my life. My dream of playing for the Dallas Cowboys came to reality on April 26, 2018. That night will forever be a night I'll never forget. During my six years as a Cowboys player, I've always pursued success and winning football games, while preparing and training with the highest standards of competition, passion and perseverance. It has been an honor to represent my family, my teammates and the people of Dallas.

"I realize that I am no longer able to adhere to the unwavering standard of excellence that professional football demands. I say this with a heavy heart: I am medically retiring from the NFL. I love the game of football so much, but my body won't cooperate any longer. I cherished every moment of my NFL career, and it has been such a blessing to play the game for as long as I have played. This year, things may look a little different for me, but the sole focus is being a great husband and father for my loving family.

"Reflecting on my six years in the NFL, and all that was required to reach my current situation, reminded me of the many people I owe humble, sincere gratitude to.

"No one has felt the daily grind more than my loving and extremely supportive wife, Madalynn. Six years ago, we were just two young individuals taking on a whole new world here in Dallas. We had so much to learn in such little time, and we took it day by day, soaking up every moment together. She has been with me throughout my entire career and was completely dedicated to helping me become my absolute best, on and off the field. I know for a fact I couldn't have been on this journey in the NFL without her. Madalynn, you have made this transition into being the mother of our little girl look so easy. For you, I am forever grateful and blessed. If there's one thing that is for sure, player wives don't get near enough credit.

"My mom and dad provided me with the perfect combination of love and discipline and taught me what hard work and persistence truly are. From an early age you two always told me, if I do something do it to my fullest ability. Every time I put on a uniform, I have always strived to stick to the principles they stand for, and I can only hope that I haven't let them down.

"My three sisters have greatly helped me in their own ways. All of them have been extremely influential in all facets of my life and having them as siblings helped transform me into the person I am today. Growing up and going to all of your games, you three set the basis for how to compete. You're all fierce in your own ways, and that has brought a lot into the passion and emotion I have played with. Still to this day some of my favorite memories are watching you guys play basketball, volleyball and run track.

"I would like to thank Boise State University for taking on a kid from Riggins, Idaho as a walk-on and letting me grow into the player that became a 1st round pick. Coach Harsin, I am thankful for the opportunity you gave me to play at my dream college. Growing up and going to the Boise State games as a kid, it was always my dream to wear that blue and orange uniform. Coach Avalos, I owe you for life and appreciate all the work you put into me. You truly believed in me and never let me settle for anything less than greatness. Still to this day you are a father figure in my life. There are countless memories on and off the field that I reminisce on.

"My agent, Ron, thank you for always having my back. You have worked countless hours making sure we have been in the best position possible. You have always taken into consideration my family's preferences first. The ins and outs of the draft process, you handled like an absolute pro. You have also taken care of us in Dallas like we are family. Anything we need, you are always there to help no matter how busy or tied up you may be in the moment. Thank you for helping make my dream of playing in the NFL and for Dallas come true.

"Football is truly the ultimate team sport, and being a part of an NFL organization makes that even more evident. So many people devote their time to helping the players, and I would like to thank everyone in the Dallas Cowboys organization, former and current, for all that you have done for me over the last six years. The athletic trainers, Jim, Britt, Greg, Hanson, you guys constantly worked your tails off to ensure I was ready to play every week. The men in the equipment room, Mike, Bucky, Dylan, Blake, thank you so much for making sure I had the right gear every day to perform the way we do. Our player security, Cable and Bryan, you two go above and beyond to make sure all of us are taken care of. Thank you! Our strength staff, Coach H, Kendall, Ced. You three have really went above and beyond for me the last few years, I love you guys like brothers. Coach Markus, we miss you every day, and not a day goes by that I stepped in the weight room and didn't think about you.

"To my exceptional teammates, former and current, I owe you everything. I look forward to addressing you formally and privately later, but please know that I love and respect all of you, and not having the opportunity to be around you is what will hurt most of all. Forming friendships and unbreakable bonds of trust on the field is what makes football so special and so important to me. When reminiscing on my NFL career, I will think about all the games won and lost, plays made or missed. I know I will think about you and the time we shared together, the trust and love we had for each other and the unwavering willingness we had to help each other succeed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

"The Dallas community and the devoted fans of the Cowboys are simply amazing. Six years ago, upon arriving in Dallas, I received the warmest welcome possible, and Dallas has been my home ever since. The dedication and passion the fans display has been inspiring. During a Sunday afternoon in the fall, there is no doubt the collective roar of our enthusiastic fans provides strength for the players. Countless times I was approached by fans and loyal season ticket holders who gave me nothing but words of encouragement and support. I cannot thank you enough.

"I thank God every day for all that He has given me: my family, my friends, my teammates, and being on this stage to impact people's lives in a positive way. Today, I would like to thank God for the countless blessings he continues to shower over my family and me. You have given me a new healthy baby girl and a wife that follows you. Without trusting in your unwavering love and guidance, I know I wouldn't have made it this far. You have blessed me with the ability to become a Dallas Cowboy and for allowing me the privilege of a 6-year professional football career. I strive to let you work through me in this next chapter to continue to impact people's lives and to be a light in this world."

It is unknown what is next for Vander Esch, a leader of men who was integral in helping to mentor players in the Cowboys' locker room and who was one of the team's most fiery and respected leaders on the field as well — much like his predecessor and mentor, Sean Lee.

But whatever he chooses to do going forward, one thing is certain, and that's the fact he'll attack it with his usual unbridled passion to be great.

Having gone from being a young boy with big dreams in Riggins, Idaho to an award-winning talent at Boise State and, ultimately, to a star linebacker for the Cowboys is proof of that.

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