Boise State Football

Vander Esch's 'incredible journey' continues with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys

From 8-man football in high school to a walk-on at Boise State, and now, a first-round NFL Draft pick.

Former Broncos linebacker Leighton Vander Esch on Thursday was selected 19th in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys.

[Related: Cowboys add Cedrick Wilson, too]

Vander Esch, the 2017 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, was among 22 players invited to attend the draft in Arlington, Texas. Meanwhile, 1,500 miles away in his hometown of Riggins, dozens of locals gathered for a watch party and celebrated his selection. Signs throughout the town of barely more than 400 read "Leighton is our No. 1 pick."

With the selection, Vander Esch, who served as a captain for Boise State in 2017, became the fifth first-round pick in Boise State history.

"It made me speechless. It's the craziest moment in my life so far," Vander Esch said of hearing his name called at AT&T Stadium in front of thousands of Cowboys fans and being picked by the team he most wanted to play for. "It's been an incredible journey. I was hoping for it the whole time. I had my fingers crossed. I was praying for it ... it was just waiting for that call."

[Related: Meet the sisters behind the football star; how Riggins reacted]

It was also a dream scenario for the Cowboys, who hoped the draft would fall in place for them to get the man they wanted all along.

With so much focus on the quarterbacks early on, the Cowboys felt the player they wanted would fall to them at No. 19. They resisted the urge to move up for Florida State safety Derwin James, who fell to 17th and the San Diego Chargers.

They had their eye on Vander Esch from the beginning in their quest to take the best player on the board as well as fill a huge need at linebacker after the departure of Anthony Hitchens to the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency.

The Cowboys made no secret of their interest. Linebackers coach Ben Bloom visited Boise State and held a private workout with Vander Esch. He was also a pre-draft visitor to the team's headquarters at the Star in Frisco. Owner Jerry Jones said, "We had this player picked out early."

Vander Esch is an ideal fit at middle linebacker, where he would replace Hitchens and allow the Cowboys to play Jaylon Smith on the strong side with Pro Bowler Sean Lee continuing to man the weak side.

"I feel like middle is my prime position," Vander Esch said. "I don’t feel like I could fit in (the defense) any better."

Vander Esch redshirted as a Boise State freshman in 2014 and amassed 47 tackles his first two seasons on the field. He was limited to six games as a redshirt sophomore because of injuries.

But the 6-foot-4, 256-pound Vander Esch broke out as a redshirt junior in 2017, ranking second in the Mountain West with 141 tackles to go along with three interceptions and three forced fumbles. His 141 tackles were the most for a Bronco defender since 1988.

Vander Esch was named the defensive MVP of Boise State's 17-14 victory over Fresno State in the 2017 Mountain West Championship Game. He announced he would forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft on Dec. 21, five days after leading Boise State to a 38-28 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Oregon.

Vander Esch's injuries as a sophomore became a controversy leading up to the draft, when reports surfaced that teams were concerned about a neck injury. He told reporters in Dallas, "I haven't had any neck injuries." The Cowboys had him undergo a medical test Thursday morning before drafting him.

He's the first linebacker drafted by the Cowboys in the first round since 2006.

"We've got Super Bowls to win. A lot of them," Vander Esch told the NFL Network minutes after being drafted.

Before his career at Boise State, Vander Esch starred at Salmon River High School as a quarterback and linebacker. As a senior in 2013, Vander Esch threw for 2,155 yards and 28 touchdowns with just one interception while running for 1,565 yards and 34 touchdowns. He ran track and played basketball, where he averaged 29.4 points per game as a senior. He was his division's All-Idaho Player of the Year in football and basketball as a senior; he won state championships in football and basketball as a junior and senior.

Vander Esch will join Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis as NFL players who went from Idaho 8-man to the NFL.

"I’m not sure of any others, but I’m very proud to welcome the fellow Idaho Long Pin Conference 8-man football star to the NFL," tweeted Paradis, who is from Council. "He’s a great kid, and with his work ethic he will go far!"

Vander Esch goes to a Cowboys team well known for its love of Boise State players. He will join alumni DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford on the Cowboys' roster. The team cut former Boise State defensive back Orlando Scandrick in the offseason.

And, of course, the quarterbacks coach is none other than former Broncos signal caller Kellen Moore.

Vander Esch helped set a Mountain West record with three first-round picks from the conference Thursday night. The others were Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen (No. 7, Buffalo Bills) and San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny (No. 27, Seattle Seahawks).

Boise State has had a player selected in the first three rounds in 11 of the past 14 drafts, and an early entrant drafted for five straight years.


OT Ryan Clady, No. 12 overall (Denver), 2008

CB Kyle Wilson, No. 29 overall (NY Jets), 2010

LB Shea McClellin, No. 19 overall (Chicago), 2012

RB Doug Martin, No. 31 overall (Buccaneers), 2012

LB Leighton Vander Esch, No. 19 overall (Cowboys), 2018

Michael Katz of the Idaho Statesman and Drew Davison and Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this story.