Meet the Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch's rise gives Cowboys reason to howl

FRISCO, Texas — Leighton Vander Esch wondered when it was going to be over.

Once again, the toddler was riding horseback with father Darwin alongside the Riggins, Idaho, mountains in the pitch-black night. The Vander Esches were en route to another hunting trip, another day of arriving at camp at 4 a.m., shooting bear or deer or elk or wolves, and then returning late.

“There are some intense memories,” Leighton told USA TODAY Sports of his hunting childhood. But “I feel like that was a lot of the start of everything.”

The adrenaline of hunting, the fear of falling off the mountain horseback, the insistence of hiking 2 miles at 2 years, 4 months old rather than having Darwin carry him? Those experiences, and the keen senses imperative to ambushing prey 900 yards out, helped mold the electric rookie linebacker Cowboys teammates and coaches now call “the Wolf Hunter.”

So when Vander Esch emerged from the AT&T Stadium tunnel last Thursday nearly 2,000 miles from the hunts so vivid in his mind, he was ready to trade the tense silence of those pursuits for the ecstatic cheers of 93,004 fans on hand for Dallas’ victory over the Saints. Wolf howls screeched through loud speakers.

The Wolf Hunter did the only thing he could think of.

He howled, too.

“It gave me chills, man,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”

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Go inside the decked out bus owned by the parents of Dallas Cowboys rookie Leighton Vander Esch.
USA TODAY

‘There was no way I could beat him’

Before Vander Esch made it to AT&T Stadium, first for the 2018 NFL Draft when the Cowboys selected him in the first round and as a rookie helping anchor a defense allowing just 18.6 points per game (second in league), he honed his athleticism in a 50-by-70-foot homemade gym. He challenged his mom, Sandy, to nightly 1-on-1 basketball games.

“Sometimes she’d let me beat her,” Leighton said.

Then he turned 13.

“And there was no way I could beat him,” Sandy said. “I was like, ‘OK, game on.’”

For Leighton, the game was always on. When a family member lost at HORSE or cards, a challenge for a rematch always followed. At family go-kart outings, Darwin begged baffled racetrack employees to give him the fastest car.

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When Leighton – who can still launch a spiral 60 to 70 feet flat-footed – tried out at a Boise State camp, the high school quarterback/running back/tight end/linebacker/safety/kicker finished second of 40 passers in skill testing.

Before long, he was 2017 Mountain West defensive player of the year.

He set his eyes on the Cowboys. It was their linebackers coach, Ben Bloom, who had offered tips on the combine and veteran linebacker Sean Lee who spent 15-20 minutes chatting with him on his visit. Sure, getting pulled into owner Jerry Jones’ office overlooking Jones’ personal helicopter was a surprise that day. But seeing Lee – the only player at headquarters besides ex-Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in – running drills on a spring day?

“I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” Vander Esch said. “I really want to be here to play with a guy like him.”

Hungry like the wolf: Leighton Vander Esch (left) howls alongside fellow Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith after a big play. (Photo: Ron Jenkins, AP)

Instant impact

The Cowboys’ first-round selection of Vander Esch ensured that pairing. Lee’s hamstring injury, which has sidelined him for seven games this season, vaulted the 22-year-old into a starting role.

The rookie leads the Cowboys with 128 tackles despite starting just seven of 12 games. He snagged interceptions in back-to-back games in November, with his performance in a win over the Eagles earning him first NFC defensive player of the week before he was awarded defensive rookie of the month.

But it’s the Cowboys’ one loss in November, not their four wins, that runs through Vander Esch’s mind. Sure, he had the picks. the goal-line stop at Atlanta and that second-and-5 rejection of Alvin Kamara alongside Jaylon Smith in the third quarter of the Cowboys’ 13-10 win over the Saints. Vander Esch was so ready for that snap he exploded at 16.69 miles per hour, according to the ZebraSports chip in his shoulder pads.

But against the Titans, Vander Esch missed not one but two tackles.

“That’s the most missed tackles I’ve had in forever,” said Vander Esch, whom Bloom said only had five misses all season. “Those two bother me. I still think about it. That irritates me.”

He returned home from Dallas’ 22-19 win over Atlanta, which his goal-line stop of Austin Hooper and interception off Calvin Ridley’s hands helped secure, and never mentioned his biggest achievement.

“Did you see I missed a tackle?” he instead asked his fiancée, Maddy Tucker.

“He didn’t say one word about the interception,” Tucker said. “Missing the tackle bugs the crap out of him.

“If he misses a tackle, it’s like a loss.”

Great expectations

Against the Eagles, Vander Esch intercepted Carson Wentz and tripped Corey Clement with 2 minutes two play for a key 5-yard loss to maintain Dallas’ 27-20 lead. He “had a feeling” the Eagles, whom he’ll face again Sunday in a matchup critical to the Cowboys’ NFC East title push, would run that screen. 

But he also felt like “another interception or two I was just a step behind,” Vander Esch said casually, as if two more picks on the season wouldn’t make him the franchise rookie leader in picks. Nine more tackles and he’ll break the Cowboys’ rookie tackling record. His goals extend much further.

“I want to be one of the best linebackers, if not the best linebackers, in the National Football League,” Vander Esch said.

With Lee’s expected return this week, he’ll chase that goal with fewer snaps, though “equally effective,” head coach Jason Garrett said. Lee, Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith will rotate, a depth problem Jones and the front office are thrilled to face.

Vander Esch intends to focus on making the most of his snaps and ensure he’s consistently making plays whenever he does get the chance.

And when he does feast on the next tackle for loss, interception or big play?

Expect the Wolf Hunter to howl.

“My teammates felt like it was pretty sweet,” he said of his new celebration. “It’s cool to give them a little bit of energy to feed off.

“I feed off every bit of energy I get from them.”

Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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