For every Boise State football home game, as much as 5 percent of the population of Riggins rolls down the highway in a single bus.
They are eager to see one player in particular, whose last name is in foot-high letters on the front and side of the 40-foot machine: Leighton Vander Esch.
Former Boise State running back Jay Ajayi was nicknamed “J-Train,” but he doesn’t have a locomotive with his name on it. Let’s call it the Vander Esch Express, as hard to miss as the junior linebacker himself.
“We get a lot of thumbs-up and people honking at us on the road,” said Darwin Vander Esch, Leighton’s father and the bus driver.
Anyone who wants to hop on the bus from Riggins, a town of 400 about 150 miles north of Boise, can do so for free. Darwin said he wanted to find a way to take people from the community to the games, and also use it to travel to road games.
Last year, he found the perfect option: a 25-year-old bus that was once used by Amtrak to take passengers from San Diego to Disneyland. After purchasing the bus “for a good price,” Darwin took out a few seats and made it into more than just a way to ferry fans.
“We took a few seats out, put in a couch, a stove, have some tables we can use,” he said. “It turned out pretty awesome.”
Blue and orange stripes are painted on the side, with “38 L. Vander Esch” in blue letters, and his last name and number on the front. On the side, there’s an image printed on a window of Vander Esch carrying the Hammer before a 2015 game. Darwin usually takes about a dozen people down for each game, but at times it has been twice that.
“It’s pretty cool to get that kind of support,” Leighton said. “That’s a great part of being from a small town, having pretty much the whole community cheering for you. It’s fun to see them after all the games.”
The support would be there regardless, with the town having pride in seeing Vander Esch rise from 8-man football standout at Salmon River High to a scholarship player for Boise State. But now they are cheering on one of the nation’s best linebackers.
Vander Esch is No. 3 in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 36 tackles, including three sacks, and has added two forced fumbles and an interception. He was named a captain before the season began.
“I take great pride in it. I have to hold myself to a certain standard, and I know others do, too,” Vander Esch said. “It makes me want to work harder.”
That effort was there from the beginning, when he joined as a walk-on in 2014. He was a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, self-described as “scrawny.” But he’s turned himself into a 240-pound tackling machine. Darwin said his son still has room to add more weight while staying athletic.
Sophomore safety DeAndre Pierce said when he first saw Vander Esch on a visit two years ago: “I heard he was a walk-on, and I was looking at that giant. I was like, ‘No way.’
“He’s a freak of nature. I’ve never seen somebody that big and that strong move that fast, jump that high. ... A one-of-a-kind player.
“It’s crazy to see his journey. I know how much he’s worked to come this far,” Pierce said.
Boise State’s roster has a handful of players like Pierce, who came from football factories like Long Beach (Calif.) Poly. But in its atypical way, Salmon River (which had a graduating class of 11 in May) helped produce someone of Vander Esch’s caliber.
“Definitely, I think it helped me,” Vander Esch said. “I played both sides of the ball. In basketball, that helped my footwork. I ran track and did the high jump. I’m a firm believer in playing as many sports as you can, and I’m glad I had that chance.”
Friday’s game against Virginia will be just the fourth start of Vander Esch’s career; he missed seven games last season as a backup due to injury. Add in the final two games of last season, in which he played after missing two months, and he’s averaged 10.2 tackles per game, with both of his career interceptions. And he’s just getting started.
“I’m sure there are things that he will tell you, that he’s made a lot of plays, but there are some things he can correct to make even more,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.
In little Riggins, Vander Esch’s success looms as large as that 10-ton bus.
“The community is really excited,” his dad said. “He’s playing where he wanted to be since he was a little kid, and he gets to show other people what a small-town guy can do.”
Five questions with Leighton Vander Esch
What was the best part of playing 8-man football?
“Probably all the scoring. We had some games where we were scoring 80 points. When that happens, it’s fun to watch, at least. I got to play offense and defense, so that was nice.”
Teammates say you’re the team’s best basketball player. Who’s the best in the NBA?
“It’s always been LeBron James to me.”
David Moa is nicknamed “Moa Constrictor” but is afraid of snakes. What are you afraid of?
“I don’t get scared very easily. I think I got it out of the way because I was afraid of a lot of things when I was little. For some reason, the thing that freaked me out the most was werewolves.”
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
“Definitely the ability to fly. I think that would be pretty cool. I always liked eagles, wish I could do what they do.”
OK, with that, they once called you “Baby Giraffe.” What is your spirit animal now?
“I think if I had to pick one that I’d want to be like, I’d have to go with a lion. They’re strong, they’re the hunters.”
Virginia at Boise State
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf); fans are asked to wear blue
TV: ESPN2 (Adam Amin, Dusty Dvoracek, Molly McGrath)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: BSU 2-1 (beat New Mexico 28-14); Virginia 2-1 (beat UConn 38-18)
Series: Boise State leads 1-0 (beat Cavaliers 56-14 in Charlottesville in 2015)
Vegas line: Boise State by 12 1/2
Kickoff weather: 52 degrees, 15 percent chance of rain