The magnitude of what he had just experienced was not lost on Leighton Vander Esch.
Speaking in the locker room minutes after the rookie linebacker’s Dallas Cowboys won their regular-season home opener over the New York Giants, Vander Esch was beaming.
Five years before, he had been playing 8-man football in front of maybe a few hundred fans. Last Sunday at AT&T Stadium, he put up a strong home debut in front of a crowd of 90,000.
“It’s been pretty incredible, to be honest,” Vander Esch said. “There has been nothing less than what I had dreamed of it to be like.”
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The 19th overall pick in April’s draft out of Boise State, Vander Esch has done what most teams would hope to see from their rookies — do whatever is asked of them.
He’s on the Cowboys’ punt return and field goal units on special teams, and the Salmon River High graduate currently is listed as the backup at middle linebacker behind Jaylon Smith. But part of what made him a first-round pick is versatility, as last Sunday he stepped in for veteran Sean Lee at weakside linebacker in the fourth quarter.
“I’m ready to play wherever they need me. I know all three linebacker positions, so if someone goes down, I can step in, try to be that dynamic player,” Vander Esch said. “I haven’t felt overwhelmed or anything like that.”
Against the Giants, Vander Esch played one second-quarter series for Lee, then most of the fourth quarter as Lee left with what he said was cramps. The ninth-year veteran, who has had an injury-plagued career, has been limited in practice this week.
That could mean more work for Vander Esch, and what he did against the Giants should give coaches some confidence. He finished third on the team with seven solo tackles despite playing 28 snaps all game.
“He was around the ball a lot, made a lot of tackles in the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “A big part of this game for us was being able to tackle guys after the catch. ... We had to tackle well, and I think he was a part of that.”
After seeing his workload double from Week 1 against the Panthers, Vander Esch is quickly becoming a part of the linebacker rotation. And for his strong showing Sunday night, he had two important people watching — his 90-year-old grandfather and 86-year-old grandmother flew in from Iowa to see him play.
“They never fly, so for them to be here and get to see this game, it was really special,” Vander Esch said.
The Dallas brass has spoken glowingly of the rookie from Riggins — owner Jerry Jones said Friday that he “really brings an exceptional dimension ... we’re going to benefit for a long time.” Vice president Stephen Jones said earlier this month that “he’s everything you look for in a linebacker.”
The 6-foot-4, 256-pound Vander Esch may look like he came from some football factory, but it is his upbringing that makes him unique. The former walk-on was called the “Wolf Hunter” by the coaching staff pre-draft, for the photos they had seen of him hunting wolves and bear in Alaska with his father, Darwin.
It isn’t anything he shies away from, in fact embracing it because he knows how far he has come, and thus is able to truly appreciate playing in front of a home crowd that by itself would be one of Idaho’s most populous cities.
“It’s been a journey nothing short of incredible, and I’m just getting started, really, so I’m doing whatever I can to keep it going, keep enjoying it,” Vander Esch said.
Dave Southorn: 377-6420, @davesouthorn