Leighton Vander Esch on his retirement: My body won't cooperate any longer

Former Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch entered the NFL with neck injuries. They now have cut short his career, ending it prematurely after six seasons.

Vander Esch, 28, announced his retirement Monday, days after the Cowboys released him with a failed physical.

"I love the game of football so much, and my body won't cooperate any longer," Vander Esch said in a statement. "I cherished every moment of my NFL career, and it has been such a blessing to play the game for as long as I have played."

The Cowboys made Vander Esch a first-round pick in 2018 despite his history of neck issues. He set a team rookie record with 176 tackles and earned his only Pro Bowl as a rookie.

But he missed time with his neck issues in 2019, 2022 and 2023.

"Seldom do you come across a player like Leighton, who grew up playing eight-man football only to first play the 11-man game at the major collegiate level and excel," owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. "His passion and love for the game was contagious, and from the moment he arrived, he has been a difference-maker. His grit, toughness, motivation, determination and football IQ will be sorely missed. Leighton also embodied the strong character and personal qualities that make him much more than an accomplished player.

"He was a leader and the kind of teammate that impacted those around him in the best ways. Leighton's playing career may have come to an end, but his future is very bright. On behalf of the entire Dallas Cowboys organization, we're proud that he wore the star on his helmet, we thank him and we wish all the best to Leighton, his wife, Madalynn, and their young daughter."

The Cowboys have prepared for life after Vander Esch, signing free agent linebacker Eric Kendricks to replace him.