Boise State Football

No matter how big an NFL star he becomes, Leighton Vander Esch stays connected to Idaho

From Riggins, Idaho to America’s Team: Leighton Vander Esch reflects on his journey

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is new poster child for small-town America kids .
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Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is new poster child for small-town America kids .

Leighton Vander Esch is among the NFL’s best linebackers by nearly any metric, a bona fide star for the most valuable sports franchise in the world. But his father, Darwin, is confident Leighton never will be too big for Idaho.

The Leighton Vander Esch ESM Football Camp was held Saturday at the Caven-Williams Sports Complex at Boise State, where children ages 6-16 were able to get instruction from Vander Esch, the former Boise State star and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker.

Vander Esch, the 19th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, was a rookie sensation for the Cowboys. He collected 140 total tackles, good for third in the NFL, and nabbed two interceptions despite starting just 11 of the team’s 16 games. He was named second-team All-Pro by The Associated Press and made the Pro Bowl while helping the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and a trip to the playoffs.

Vander Esch’s story is well documented. Hailing from Riggins, a town of just more than 400 people, the former Salmon River High quarterback starred in 8-man football, walked on at Boise State and transformed into the 2017 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.

Vander Esch might live in the “big city” now — Dallas is home to more than a million people — but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He can’t, his father said.

“Riggins will always be home for him,” Darwin Vander Esch said. “Leighton was born and raised there, so that’s home.”

Leighton Vander Esch didn’t just have his name branded on Saturday’s camp. Along with a handful of other former Boise State players, Vander Esch was hands on, running backpedal drills, throwing passes and working up a sweat. He made a point to high-five campers following each session he led.

It wasn’t too long ago that Darwin was taking Leighton to camps.

“It’s pretty surreal being out here with all these kids,” Leighton said. “I was a kid once. And I remember what it felt like to go to these camps.”

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Leighton Vander Esch, the 19th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, was back at Boise State on Saturday to hold a football skills camp for children. Michael Katz mkatz@idahostatesman.com

For Triston Adams and his mother, Sonya, Vander Esch’s meteoric rise to stardom means a bit more. The family lives in Riggins, a town that, prior to Vander Esch, was known for rodeos and rafting trips.

But Triston proudly wore his “Salmon River Football” sweatshirt, knowing that any dreams he has aren’t too out of the ordinary anymore. He was able to stare an idol straight in the face Saturday, proof that he could follow his dreams, too.

“It’s crazy to see how far he’s (gone), and how fast, too,” said Triston, a sophomore at Salmon River. “We can just see what you can accomplish.”

Sonya Adams said that Riggins has rallied around Leighton and his successes. Every Sunday, a local bar, Summervilles Bar and Cafe, is filled with Cowboys jerseys, each person rooting for Vander Esch to make another tackle. But just as important as watching the former Bronco thrive on television, she said, has been seeing him in person since he was drafted.

Vander Esch still practices with current Salmon River players when he has the opportunity. He recently donated new helmets and a new workout room to the school, something Sonya Adams said was desperately needed. No matter the accolades — and there are plenty for Vander Esch these days — he is never too big for home.

And that type of lesson, Sonya Adams said, is worthy of celebration.

“(People in Riggins) recognize how he comes from a small town, and how he has not lost the small-town feeling, and contributions that he makes to the school,” she said. “To see that something so big could come out of something so small tells these kids that there’s no limits.”

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