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It’s perhaps strange to consider that, at 26, Leighton Vander Esch is already an elder statesman on the Cowboys defense. Yes, cornerback C.J. Goodwin and edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence have already hit the big 3-0. And Devante Bond is technically the team’s oldest linebacker, though he has yet to play a down wearing the star.
But when the wide-eyed rookies come out of a meeting with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn these days, it’s Vander Esch who they’re increasingly looking to for guidance on how to do things the right way. The professional way. The Cowboy way.
Fresh off signing a one-year contract in March that will keep in him in Dallas for a fifth season, Vander Esch sat down with Cowboys Wire for a one-on-one conversation about his new role as a locker room mentor, his expectations for the team this year, which players he feels will take the next leap, how a new offseason regimen has gotten him in the best shape of his life, and how an off-the-field partnership is making him an even better leader on the field.
Reliving the past, but not for long
Jan 16, 2022; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) reacts after a tackles against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half of the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
It’s a longstanding sports cliché that a hard loss should be put in the rearview quickly, banished to the past forever. We’re moving on. Not dwelling on our mistakes. Looking ahead.
The Cowboys started 2022 training camp, though, by rewinding the tape on the last game of the 2021 campaign. But it wasn’t the game film of their heartbreaking 23-17 playoff loss to San Francisco that the coaches cued up for a team viewing party.
It was the postgame press conferences, the ones where the team’s most vocal representatives stood at a hot mic and talked about the hollow and disappointing end to what had once been a very promising season.
“It really makes you remember that feeling,” Vander Esch explained of the exercise, “remember how it all went down. Obviously, you never want that to happen. You don’t want that to happen again. It kind of brought back those emotions.”
But rather than infect Oxnard with that bad taste all over again, the linebacker said it served as excellent motivation for the players, both the ones who had been there and the new faces who’ve been added for the next chapter.
“Everybody handled it extremely well, like, let’s really start this thing off right this season and just keep grinding and take it day by day and game by game and not get too far ahead of ourselves, not look too far in the future. Live in the moment now… and whoever we’re playing this week, that’s who we’re going to go crush.”
Building on DQ's foundation
Jun 8, 2021; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) runs through a drill during voluntary Organized Team Activities at the Ford Center at the Star Training Facility in Frisco, Texas. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
In 2018, it was all new to Vander Esch, a first-round draft pick out of Boise State. By 2020, he had a new coaching staff and new schemes… but no real training camp due to COVID. Then 2021 brought him his third defensive coordinator in four seasons in Dan Quinn.
Vander Esch is thrilled to not have yet another learning curve to deal with this summer. And he believes that continuity will only help a unit that saw exponential improvement last season.
“I think we picked up right where we left off, instead of having to start over and go with a new coaching staff,” he said. “We have the same system. Being able to have familiar faces in the room leading our defense- our D-coordinator and defensive coaches- we’re way ahead of where we were last year at this time. I’m seeing extremely positive, promising things, and I’m excited at what we’re doing. Just pumped to get this thing going.”
Vander Esch in particular seemed to get more comfortable as 2021 went on. He logged 10 tackles in Week 17 of the season, snagged an interception in the regular-season finale (his first since his rookie campaign), and led the entire defense in tackles in the wild card loss to the 49ers.
Working in a scheme he knows well certainly helps.
“This is a system that I’m familiar with, pretty much my whole life,” he shared. “This was a major blessing, having DQ come in and bring the system in that I’m most used to. So really, it was easy to learn it then, and now it’s even better: being able to communicate it and just be confident and focus on other things.”
Leading the way by following Lee's example
Dallas Cowboys linebackers Sean Lee (50) and Leighton Vander Esch (55) sit on the bench during an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)
One of those “other things” is helping along the younger members of the Cowboys defense, and the LB unit in particular. The team has drafted four linebackers in the past two years and brought in several others from elsewhere.
He’s played in just 55 games, but Vander Esch leads the corps by a ton in experience.
“I take pride in my intelligence and my knowledge that I can hand to them, hand to those young guys, help them in any questions that they have or if they’re struggling in certain areas,” he said. “I take pride in that, being someone that they can come to about the game, knowing what I’m talking about and being able to show them how to do things the right way.”
If that sounds a little bit familiar, there’s good reason. Vander Esch had an awfully good teacher himself when he came aboard in Dallas. And he freely admits he now finds himself channeling his inner Sean Lee.
“Absolutely. I still think back, I keep in contact with Sean,” Vander Esch told Cowboys Wire. “I actually talked to him a couple days ago, and I just told him how much I miss him and miss having him around the room. I always remind him how much he taught me, and I feel like I’m constantly reminding myself and explaining things in ways that he would explain things to me, because I know how much it helped me. He was an amazing person, an amazing football player to have in our room, and I miss him every day.”
Living a real-life cowboy code
Much of Vander Esch’s public persona is based on his upbringing in the Idaho wilderness: hunting, fishing, even feeding wild bears by hand (as seen this offseason via social media).
That lifestyle has led him to a partnership with Polaris, the off-road vehicle and snowmobile manufacturer. It’s a natural fit for the real-life outdoorsman.
And it led him to spend a day in May shooting a YouTube series titled Cowboy Code. In it, Vander Esch and his wife Maddy- a competitive rodeo athlete- team up with roping champion Tyson Durfey and world-class barrel racer Lisa Lockhart to learn a different set of ropes on the ranch. (Part 2 of the series goes live on Aug. 9.)
“It was one of the best days I’ve ever had in my life,” the linebacker gushed.
And while Vander Esch got hands-on lessons in riding and roping and being a cowboy off the field, he says the experience of filming all day with two of Texas’s most iconic rodeo stars showed some real parallels with how he tries to conduct himself in his own line of work on the gridiron.
“It reminds you of how awesome the Western culture is, just how down-to-earth everybody is in that lifestyle. Everybody wants to see everybody succeed, and anybody that needs help, they’re right there to help them. I think that’s part of the cowboy code: treating people the right way and what we talk about in the episodes,” he reflected. “It’s reminding you why you do what you do, being a great person: your morals, your values, and the life that you live, being able to share that with somebody and being able to affect somebody else’s life in a positive way.”
Vander Esch gets a loud and personalized reminder of the impact he’s had on Cowboys fans each and every gameday. Even going into his fifth season, he says hearing the home crowd do his signature “wolf howl” is still magical to him.
“That’s what it’s all about: all the fans, the way they fill that stadium and the way they get place rocking on gameday. That’s special,” the ‘Wolf Hunter’ says, “and there’s no other atmosphere like it around the NFL. To have their support and to hear that during the game when you make a big play, it’s awesome. It’s a unique experience when you’re down there on the field to hear that go off and everybody howling and cheering and having a good time.”
Fine-tuning the machine
Jul 28, 2022; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) participates in drills at training camp at River Ridge Fields in Oxnard, CA. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The months since the postseason ended weren’t spent just riding around the ranch for Vander Esch.
“I spent the majority of this whole offseason just training as hard as I possibly could,” the 6-foot-4-inch Vander Esch told us. “I trained harder than any [offseason] and kind of changed up my regimen a lot this offseason, and I think it’s really helped me lean out a little bit and lose a little bit of weight. I just feel more comfortable in my body, being able to run around and get back to flying around and having fun.”
He explained that he often put in two workouts- plus a run- per day over the past several months to make sure he’s in prime shape. Head coach Mike McCarthy said in June of the linebacker, “This is the best he’s looked in my time with him.”
That conditioning will help Vander Esch as he tries to stay healthy for every game of the upcoming season.
“It’s gone extremely well,” he pointed out, “and I think it’s all paying off.”
He played in all 17 games in 2021 after missing considerable time the two years prior due to injuries.
“The NFL season is just extremely long,” he admitted. “So you’ve got to do what you can to fight through that. You kind of get to a point now where you almost enjoy being sore because you know you’re doing something that’s worth it. When I wake up in the morning and I’m sore after a game, that’s what I love. I embrace that and then get my body to go do it again for the whole next week.”
Finding his new place among the stars
ARLINGTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 20: Leighton Vander Esch #55 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates a tackle during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles in the game at AT&T Stadium on October 20, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Vander Esch has never been the main attraction in the Dallas linebacking corps. Whether he was alongside Sean Lee or Jaylon Smith, or even now Micah Parsons, the Idaho native has always been best as part of an ensemble.
“We’re all young,” he says of this year’s group. “It’s sort of weird being the old guy in the room. We’ve got a good crew that just loves playing ball. It’s definitely a different dynamic with how young we are.”
But now as one of the defensive leaders- he was calling plays for the unit as recently as last week in practice- he’s looking out for the whole unit, too.
“I think the coaches are doing an extremely good job utilizing us in the areas that are our strengths,” he explained. “Really, there are a lot of different strengths that we all have, so you can play us all pretty much wherever, and I think that’s what make this defensive unit special. We have so many guys that can play so many different positions.”
And he says opposing teams will have to worry about far more than just the Cowboys’ obvious A-list superstars.
“I think DA [defensive end Dorance Armstrong]’s going to have a big year for us. He just comes to work every single day, he grinds. He doesn’t say much, but he’s super fun to be around, and he works extremely hard. I think he’s going to be big for us, filling in Randy’s spot. He’s done everything he needs to do to get to this point.”
And as for the Dallas offense, Vander Esch can already attest to one of the young studs he’s gone up against in practice.
“Tyler [Smith, rookie offensive lineman]. I think he’s going to shock a lot of people with how good he is. He’s sneaky good. Like, really, really good.”
And with Vander Esch applying his real-life cowboy code to his football team and riding herd on an up-and-coming defense, he’s hoping to lasso some lofty goals this season, for both himself and the Cowboys.
“I want to have a big year. Obviously play my role and just be an extremely vocal leader, be consistent. Obviously, I want to have an All-Pro season and help this defense go chase that Super Bowl,” he says. “That’s the ultimate goal, is to go get that Super Bowl ring and bring that trophy home to Dallas. We’re going to do everything we can make sure that happens.”