When Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch started his first NFL game vs. Detroit in Week 4, it was just the 15th of his life against an 11-man offense.
The majority of varsity high school football players end their careers with more starts than the first-round pick who has a chance to become the first rookie in franchise history to lead the team in tackles.
It's absurd to think about, really. Not only how the kid from barely-on-the-map Riggins, Idaho, came to America's Team, but just how much upside the 21-year-old has. For comparison, Cowboys captain Sean Lee didn't start his first NFL game until he was 25 years old.
"I've enjoyed every single bit of it," Vander Esch said. "My dream the entire time, my whole life, was to play in the NFL. This is what I've always wanted, and to make sure I'm able to keep living that dream, I'm going to work as hard as possible. I've learned so much just since being drafted, and I'm picking things up every time I'm on the field.
"I adapt well to whatever circumstance I'm put in, and I've been having a blast here, just having so much fun."
And it's showing on the field as Vander Esch not only leads the Cowboys in tackles with over 115 heading into the final month of the season, but has two interceptions and has been named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his 18-tackle performance against the Eagles.
Vander Esch has spent his life adapting to whatever situation presents itself. His father, Darwin, has run a professional hunting business for nearly two decades, in Idaho until 2010 and Alaska ever since, where he does two-month stretches in the spring and fall. Thus, hunting, fishing, skeet shooting, the outdoor life has been commonplace since Leighton's earliest memories. The family home has hunting trophies in virtually every room of the house, from mountain lions to bears. Part of his offseason training going back to high school is running up and down mountains like Rocky Balboa in Russia during Rocky IV.
"Hunting and fishing are just as much of my daily routine as football or eating meals," he said. "That's just been my life from the beginning."
When asked if he's ever been scared by a situation, Vander Esch pauses and thinks for a few seconds before smiling, "Honestly, no. I mean, at least not something that would scare my father or me. Maybe other people would be running."
So yeah, when the "Wolf Hunter," as he's been nicknamed by some, sees a running back or tight end coming across the field, there is certainly not any trepidation, considering he's chased down buffalo and lynx. And chasing down opposing ball carriers is a task for which Vander Esch is showing an abundance of talent, having totaled 113 tackles, including 83 solo stops, through the first 11 games, both of which are team highs. And this despite starting just six of those contests. The image of Jaylon Smith and him roaming the field, sideline to sideline, for the next decade or so suits Cowboys fans just fine.
Which might be expected from a first-round pick, but not so much from someone who played eight-man football in high school, weighed 185 pounds as a junior and wasn't offered a single Division-I scholarship.
Growing up in Riggins, there weren't many options for children to play youth sports. The town wasn't against it or anything, and money wasn't an issue. The berg does quite well for itself with tourists on hunting and fishing trips.
Nope, the problem was children to fill those teams as the population for several generations has hovered around 406, give or take a few on either end.
"It's definitely small. It's barely in existence. Everyone knows everyone," Vander Esch said. "And it's never changed, always right around 400, maybe 410 people my entire life. It's a small tourist town. People come to hunt, fish, hike, camp, all that outdoors stuff. Rafting in the summer, four-wheeling, dirt biking, everyone comes to town year around. But we weren't big enough to have teams growing up.
"I did grow up in a big basketball family. My three older sisters played, and honestly, I had a football and basketball in my hands before I could walk."
Salmon River Junior/Senior High School, which is located in Riggins, three hours north of Boise, currently has 63 students and nine teachers for grades six through 12. One teacher handles math, Spanish, history and psychology.
Vander Esch's graduating class was 11, which obviously made fielding sports teams problematic. However, in his junior and senior seasons, every single male student, freshman and higher, played football, giving them 24 players, more than enough for eight-man football, which features just three down linemen on offense and linebackers who also play drop-back coverage.
After playing only linebacker as a 140-pound freshman, Vander Esch was inserted at quarterback as a sophomore when Salmon River switched to a spread offense. The team took off, culminating in a 53-38 state championship victory in which the signal-caller tallied more than 500 yards of total offense and five touchdowns. He went on to add two basketball state titles to his trophy case during his prep career, averaging 30 points and 11 rebounds as a senior, as well as another football crown.
"That town lives and dies football and basketball," Vander Esch said. "When we went to state the first time, and everyone was there, that was a pretty big deal for them and us. It really was to the point that when we were playing either sport, you could see all 400 people from Riggins in the stands or playing. Our football games, we had one set of bleachers that was always filled and then people would stand around the field. They made as much noise as several thousand fans for sure."
For his part, even with his lack of 11-on-11 experience entering the NFL, the rookie believes playing eight-man has actually helped him as a linebacker, saying the game was more about chasing and tracking down ball carriers since fewer players were on the field. That, combined with playing basketball and even competing in several track events, only added to his athleticism. The hunting and outdoor sports certainly played a part, too.
What didn't play a part, at least in high school, was lifting weights. There isn't even an athletic office, only one hallway, so a weight room wasn't exactly a priority.
"I honestly didn't see a weight until my first week at Boise," Vander Esch said.
There was a growth spurt, though, that saw him add 6 inches in a year, which at least made his size-14 feet look more normal. When Boise State linebackers coach Andy Avalos arrived at Salmon River High School one day in the spring of 2013, he found a tall, skinny kid, more of a basketball player/quarterback than a linebacker. He soon nicknamed Vander Esch "the baby giraffe."
The coach told The Ringer earlier this year, "There's not that many diamonds in the rough anymore – with social media and online recruiting services and online highlights that anyone can watch on a cellphone these days. His high school didn't have the online stuff. In our opinion, that's why he stayed unnoticed to the majority of people."
At first, the invite was for a skills camp that summer. Then, a chance to walk-on. As a redshirt freshman, he still wasn't 200 pounds, and the focus was on eating and lifting weights as much as the transition to 11-man football. He gained 20-plus pounds that first year despite going home most weekends to work as a guide.
"My body absorbed everything I ate that year. I was eating a lot, too, a lot of biscuits," Vander Esch said. "The growth spurt wasn't fun. My body hurt a lot and I couldn't really run, but it worked out for the best."
Before departing Boise for the summer, Vander Esch was offered and accepted a full scholarship. That next season, his sophomore year, it was mostly special teams as his development was somewhat halted by a seven-week layoff that was eventually attributed to a neck issue. Despite not even having 50 career tackles in two seasons, the talent on the practice field was obvious, and teammates were telling the media he was their best player, even voting him a captain.
When asked why he played linebacker instead of quarterback at Boise, Vander Esch, who can throw the ball between 60 and 65 yards, didn't hesitate.
"That's what Coach Avalos thought I should play, and the man had a plan for me. That worked out pretty well, so I trusted him, and here I am," he said. "And yeah, I think the quarterback thing would have worked out just fine if we tried that route. I think they could have tried me at almost any position. I came there as a football player rather than a specific position."
As a junior in 2017, Vander Esch broke out in the biggest of ways, winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors, and upon entering the draft after that season, he drew comparisons to former Bears All-Pro Brian Urlacher. The Cowboys surprised some by taking a linebacker with their first-round pick when many assumed a wide receiver was the target, but with Lee missing three games in the first half of the season, the decision looks well-advised.
"There's a reason they drafted me in the first round and I have to live up to that," Vander Esch said. "From the first day I got here, I've tried to spend as much time with Sean and Jaylon as possible. Even before OTAs started, the three of us were meeting and watching film. Sean is drawing up plays and asking me questions, and teaching me all of this stuff, and Jaylon is as smart as any player I've been around. It just allows me to keep learning and growing."
Learning, growing, and maybe making some history in the process. The closest a Cowboys rookie has come to leading the team in tackles was linebacker Robert Jones, who finished with 108, a dozen behind Ken Norton Jr., in 1992. That would be quite the accomplishment for any first-year player, never mind for a 180-pound high school senior without a single college scholarship offer.
And the legend of Leighton Vander Esch is just starting.