Boise State Football

Want to know what makes Leighton Vander Esch tick? Ask his sisters.

Former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is pictured with his sisters from left to right, Morgon, Christon and Shannon. He credits them from being a major influence on him as a youngster growing up in Riggins, and now he is a likely first-round NFL Draft pick.
"He went from becoming a starter to famous in like a year. It’s hard to grasp how fast it happened," Morgon said. "It's really funny hearing people say 'I know Leighton's sister.' "
Former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is pictured with his sisters from left to right, Morgon, Christon and Shannon. He credits them from being a major influence on him as a youngster growing up in Riggins, and now he is a likely first-round NFL Draft pick. "He went from becoming a starter to famous in like a year. It’s hard to grasp how fast it happened," Morgon said. "It's really funny hearing people say 'I know Leighton's sister.' " Courtesy Morgon Vander Esch

Christon Medley wouldn't be too surprised if a one-ton gift showed up in her driveway someday soon.

Her little brother, Leighton Vander Esch, said more than a decade ago that once he achieved his seemingly improbable dream, she would benefit.

"I thought Volkswagen (Beetles) were the coolest thing. He was probably 10, and he said a few times in the years after that he’d buy me one when he made it to the NFL,” Medley said.

[Related: Why Cowboys took Vander Esch; how Riggins reacted]

On Thursday, Leighton, not so little anymore, likely will see that dream come to fruition. And Christon, along with older sister Shannon and younger sister Morgon, will be in Arlington, Texas, with him to celebrate at the NFL Draft.

When the former Boise State linebacker was asked last month who the most influential forces were in his formative years in Riggins, he said it was those three women — all older than him.

“It would have to be my sisters, for sure,” Leighton said.

Leighton grew up in the small town 150 miles north of Boise. Well before he grew into the 6-foot-4, 255-pound linebacker who starred at Boise State, he would tag along with his sisters to open gym at Salmon River High as the at-times-annoying little brother.

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Former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is joined by his sisters Shannon, Morgon (on his back) and Christon while he starred at Salmon River High. Courtesy Morgon Vander Esch

All three girls wound up playing college basketball and were among the few who would play against local guys in those pickup games. Leighton would get in a few shots when the baskets weren’t being used and sometimes got into games late.

"He had to play up most of his life when he was younger,” said the family patriarch, Darwin.

Sandy Vander Esch, mother of former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, describes his upbringing in Riggins, Idaho, on the way to the NFL.

Eventually, Leighton was able to beat his sisters in hoops, but that wasn’t until after they had all finished high school. Competition, however, was a constant.

Morgon, the youngest daughter and nearly six years older than Leighton, constantly raced her brother across the family’s property from the shop to one of the house’s doors. They would come in with such force, hitting the imaginary finish line so close, the glass sometimes took the brunt of it.

"I think we broke that glass four times before they just decided to replace the door,” Morgon said. “… He’s a competitive guy, a hard worker. He’s a big, tough guy on the field, but he’s also got the biggest heart. He’s the best little brother you can ask for.”

Probably the best example of that is when he got his driver’s license, Leighton volunteered to do something most adults don’t even want to do.

He said whenever his sisters wanted to go out for a night on the town, he’d come pick them up. And he did, even in the wee hours of the morning.

"We definitely took him up on that a couple of times,” Christon said. “We’d pick on him a bit when he was little, but he still always wanted to be around.”

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Former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is pictured with his sisters Morgon, Christon and Shannon at Christon's 2015 wedding. He credits them with being a major influence on him as a youngster growing up in Riggins, and now he is a likely first-round NFL Draft pick. "He went from becoming a starter to famous in like a year. It’s hard to grasp how fast it happened," Morgon said. "It's really funny hearing people say 'I know Leighton's sister.'" Courtesy Morgon Vander Esch

The Vander Esch kids were always encouraged to pursue their interests, provided, as Darwin puts it, “they gave it their all – it doesn’t matter where you’re from – that matters most.” He built a gym inside a barn on the family’s property, complete with a 3-point line and even a batting cage.

But Leighton’s goal was clear early on. He wanted to play in the NFL.

Leighton knew playing in a small town meant colleges weren’t going to be flowing through town — he had to work for their attention. Playing 8-man football will do that. He put his football highlights on YouTube himself. Eventually, Boise State offered a walk-on opportunity before his senior year, and he jumped on it.

"He probably could have gotten a scholarship at a smaller school, but he always wanted to play at Boise State,” Darwin said. “Scholarship or not, he was getting that chance, and he was ready to put in that work.”

Charlie Shepherd, who coached Leighton Vander Esch at Salmon River High in Riggins, speaks to the Mountain West Network about Vander Esch's high school days and the advice he gave him about turning pro.

But even starring at Salmon River had its advantages. Leighton played on both sides of the ball in football and led Salmon River to state titles in football and basketball his last two years of high school. He ran track and did the high jump, too. His sisters said he could be in the X Games as a snowmobile jumper if he really wanted.

Leighton’s football conditioning involved literally running up sides of mountains, so the dreaded decks at Albertsons Stadium weren’t quite as daunting.

He even developed leadership skills in an atypical way that helped him become a captain last season for the Broncos — as a summer river rafting guide for Mountain River Outfitters.

"He learned how to take care of people, how to be in control,” Darwin said. “They’re depending a lot on you, but it’s not going to go where you want it to unless they help. You need your teammates to be successful.”

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Former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch always had a cheering section when playing for Salmon River High. He's joined by sisters Morgon, Christon and Shannon, left to right, in this photo. Courtesy Morgon Vander Esch

Leighton thrived in the lonely hours, making the adjustment to 11-man football as he redshirted, devouring film — and food — as he added about 30 pounds in his first year. He was put on scholarship in spring 2015.

He earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors last season after racking up 141 tackles (8.5 for loss), four sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles. And he’s already inspiring players who were in a similar spot as he was just a few years ago.

"You look at his circumstances now, it’s pretty wild,” said sophomore linebacker Benton Wickersham, a walk-on from Elko, Nev. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you come here, you’ll get your chance.”

That sort of praise is something that surprised Leighton at first, but something he’s learned to embrace — the poster child of small-town grit, bucking the odds along the way.

"It meant a lot to me having people I could look up to growing up like my older sisters and my parents. … Now I’m in those shoes, and I’ve got to be the best person I can be on the field and off the field,” Leighton said.

All three sisters, Darwin and their mother, Sandy, will be on hand hoping to see Leighton become the first Mountain West defender taken in the first round since another former Boise State small-school standout — Shea McClellin (Marsing) in 2012.

They’ve known what the thousands watching will soon know, about a tough guy with a soft center who won’t stop working. As Leighton said himself, “I want to be the best linebacker in the NFL.”

"No one deserves this more than him,” Christon said. “We all had this dream with him, so to see it come together like this, it’s a one-of-a-kind story.”

Boise State football beat reporter Dave Southorn will be in Riggins on Thursday for the NFL Draft. Follow along at idahostatesman.com, on Twitter @davesouthorn and at facebook.com/boisestatesports.

BOISE STATE’S SMALL-TOWN SUCCESSES

Leighton Vander Esch, a Riggins native (population 406), is the next Idaho small-town NFL prospect from Boise State. It is a select group that bucked the odds to not just star in college, but reach the sport’s highest level.

Matt Paradis, Council (pop. 818): Sixth-round pick in 2016 by the Denver Broncos and hasn’t missed a snap in last three years, second-longest streak in NFL.

Shea McClellin, Marsing (pop. 1,282): First-round pick in 2012 by the Chicago Bears, missed all of last season on New England’s roster and is a free agent.

Korey Hall, Glenns Ferry (pop. 1,235): Sixth-round pick in 2007 by the Green Bay Packers, moved to fullback in the NFL and played five seasons with Packers, Saints.

NFL DRAFT – WHERE TO WATCH

6 p.m. Thursday (first round): FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network

5 p.m. Friday (second, third rounds): FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network

10 a.m. Saturday (fourth-seventh rounds): ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network

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