Freshman linebacker Leighton Vander Esch told Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin in an evaluation meeting last spring that he planned to commute home to Riggins on weekends over the summer to work as a raft guide.
Harsin told him not to bother. He was putting Vander Esch on scholarship.
“I just didn’t know what to say after that,” Vander Esch said Monday, telling the story during his first media availability as a Bronco. “I went kind of blank for 30 seconds. ... It’s a great opportunity, but I’ve still got to do what I’ve been doing – work as hard as I can and not take anything for granted.”
The rest of the Broncos’ linebackers were waiting outside Harsin’s door when the meeting ended. They poured into the office and gave hugs to the freshman who linebackers coach Andy Avalos calls a “baby giraffe.”
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The Broncos’ older linebackers – they have four with extensive experience on defense and a fifth who is one of the top special-teamers – have served as mentors for Vander Esch.
“We’re deep at linebacker,” he said. “We’ve got four or five older guys that are there and they want to see you succeed, too, just like they are. Doing what they do every single day, just following them, taking their advice, not blowing them off – that’s the biggest thing. When you’re young, you have to look for that person or the veterans that you can just tuck under and stay under their wing so they can teach you and show you what you need to do to get better.”
Vander Esch, in turn, already has started helping the Broncos’ newcomers.
“He’s just gotten so much better – it’s unbelievable,” junior starting linebacker Ben Weaver said. “... After this summer, you could see him grow as a leader and teaching some of the young guys. It’s pretty fun to watch.”
Vander Esch helped Salmon River High win back-to-back state titles in football and basketball during his last two years of high school. He was a state player of the year in both sports.
He said he needed humility to make the transition from toast of the town in Riggins to anonymous walk-on in Boise.
“Coming from a small town and doing the things that my team and I did in high school, now it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “That stuff was the world to me when I was in high school, but now as soon as I graduated I had to forget about that and start over.”
Vander Esch, who played quarterback in high school, has put on about 30 pounds since joining the Broncos. He is 6-foot-4, 234 pounds.
That’ll be another pinch-me moment.
“My whole entire life, I’ve wanted to play college football at Boise State,” Vander Esch said.