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Leighton Vander Esch Is More Than Just Football Folklore

Prized NFL prospects don’t typically hail from places like tiny Riggins, Idaho. But then again, towns like this don’t often produce players with a combination of otherworldly athleticism, instincts, and do-it-yourself drive. Enter Vander Esch, the Paul Bunyan of this draft class—and the most unlikely story entering the 2018 first round.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Leighton Vander Esch’s family home rests on a flat patch of land carved into the side of a mountain. Seven Devils Road juts west off Highway 95 and marks the southern border to Riggins, Idaho, the town about three hours north of Boise where Vander Esch was raised. Before Leighton’s father, Darwin, used an industrial bulldozer to fashion a driveway into these hills, no lot existed. The address is their own creation.

In all, the property encompasses 300 acres. At the top of the mile-long road, up a treacherous incline, lies a small clearing that overlooks all of Riggins. Every sight from Vander Esch’s youth is visible from this perch. There’s the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, home to the area’s best fishing holes. There’s Shorts Bar, a small beach with impossibly fine sand where he’d take half-day rafting trips. In the distance, the mountain peaks that hosted hunting camps dominate the skyline. Riggins is nestled into a canyon between two national forests, and is hardly the sort of place known for producing premium NFL talent. When Carson Wentz entered the league two years ago, the Eagles quarterback was seen as a small-town boy stepping into the spotlight. Wentz’s hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota, has a population of 72,417. Riggins has a grand total of 406.

On Thursday night, Vander Esch is set to become a first-round pick in the NFL draft, capping a story as unlikely as any in this year’s class. With no starts to his credit by his third year at Boise State, he headed into the 2017 season as an unknown to NFL evaluators. Following a campaign that included 141 tackles, fifth in the FBS, he has risen up draft boards faster than any other player.

As an eight-man-football star at Salmon River High School, Leighton had no guarantee that his name would even make it to the coaching staff in Boise. But after he led the Savages to four combined state titles in two sports, tales of his greatness trickled out of the canyon and into the valley. He came to college as a curiosity, a piece of folklore that had descended down the mountain. He left as a revelation. After turning heads with an otherworldly performance at this year’s combine, the linebacker has become the subject of widespread scouting fascination, the prospect equivalent of Paul Bunyan.

As he prepares for the next step, he knows that people will question the veracity of his feats. For a kid from Riggins, Idaho, it’s nothing new. “That’s what it will always be,” Vander Esch says. “I had that small-school atmosphere at Boise. Everyone wants to doubt it. You never get away from it: Are you still going to be good enough?

The sign outside River Rock Cafe, Vander Esch’s favorite breakfast spot, is one of the many tributes to him around town. “Go Leighton,” it reads on a cloudless morning in late March. “All the way to the NFL.” As Vander Esch folds his 6-foot-4 frame into a booth near the window, owner Kim Olson walks over to greet him. “I’m glad I didn’t miss you,” Olson says. “I had to leave yesterday, and I told the girls, ‘OK, I want a phone call if [Leighton] comes in. I want to know what’s happening.’”

When the cafe opened in 2007, Riggins was abuzz. This is a place where Main Street is the only street that runs through town, and any addition causes a significant stir. Rumors swirled last summer that a brand-new grocery store was replacing the pothole-filled parking lot in the middle of Riggins. A year later, Vander Esch still can’t believe that his town has Whitewater Market, its own miniature version of an Albertsons. “It’s the nicest store that we’ve ever, ever had,” he says, still with an air of disbelief.

Everyone knows everyone around here, has some bond connecting the threads of their lives. Olson’s son, Jake Manley, was a senior fullback at Salmon River High when Vander Esch was a freshman. By then, Savages head coach Charlie Shepherd Sr. had known Vander Esch for years. Growing up, Leighton was inseparable with Shepherd’s two boys, Charlie Jr. and Jimmy, and Leighton started filming varsity football games in the third grade. Shepherd had long imagined that the team would thrive once Vander Esch and his sons got to high school, so he slotted Leighton in as a starting outside linebacker as a shrimpy 140-pound freshman. There was no question about Vander Esch’s athletic ability; the concern was his tendency to run around blocks instead of barreling straight through them.

To indoctrinate the 5-foot-10 15-year-old to the rigors of varsity football, Shepherd pitted Vander Esch against Manley in every drill imaginable. With Leighton giving up three years and 40 pounds, practices turned into one-sided affairs. “He would just run me over, run me over, and run me over,” Vander Esch says.

Over time, though, the cumulative beatdowns had their desired effect. “It did two things,” Shepherd says. “One, it taught him to [take on contact]. And two, at our level, if you can take Jake Manley on, head on, then you can take anybody else in the state head on.”

In eight-man football, only three down linemen are ineligible receivers on offense, and outside linebackers double as cornerbacks on defense. Vander Esch spent most of that first season filling the latter role, but during the team’s first playoff game Shepherd decided to make a drastic change. Salmon River’s offense couldn’t move the ball against Garden Valley High, and in a last-ditch effort, the coach threw in Vander Esch as a replacement quarterback. “He went out there and brought us back, gave us a chance, an opportunity to win that game at the end,” Shepherd says. “I’d have to say that game was when I really decided, or really opened my eyes that, yes, this kid is … he’s a little bit above average. He’s a special talent.”

What Shepherd didn’t know is that that talent would soon be stuffed into a far more formidable package. Over the next 12 months, Vander Esch sprouted 6 inches. Now standing at his current height, his size-14 feet finally made sense. But the rapid growth spurt brought constant aches and pains. “My legs, my hips, my back, everything [hurt],” Vander Esch says. “I couldn’t run. I could not run. It was miserable.” There were days when his shin splints throbbed so much he could barely practice.

Settled into his body a year later, Vander Esch ushered in a golden age of Salmon River High athletics. In 2013 and 2014, he led the Savages to two straight state basketball titles; as a senior, he averaged 29.4 points and 11.1 rebounds. His exploits on the football field followed suit. Most eight-man teams in Idaho rely on run-heavy offenses that bunch all 16 players in the box. Starting Vander Esch’s sophomore year, Salmon River adopted a spread offense that sent four eligible receivers across the field. That left just Vander Esch and the three remaining linemen in the backfield, and he was at his best when asked to improvise.

In the 2012 state championship game, Salmon River faced Lighthouse Christian High, the same opponent that had routed it in the playoffs a year earlier. The Savages and Lions traded haymakers all night, matching each other touchdown for touchdown until a fourth-down conversion and late interception swung the game in the fourth quarter. Vander Esch finished with more than 500 yards of total offense in the 53-38 win and accounted for all five of his team’s offensive touchdowns. It was the first legendary yarn in a story that’d come to include many of them.

“That game was when it all came together for Leighton as far as physical ability—his confidence and his willpower, too,” Shepherd says. “He just decided that no matter what, we were not gonna lose.”

Robert Mays

Salmon River High consists of a single hallway and 10 classrooms. At any given time, the entire school has a student body of 35 to 40 students. Vander Esch’s graduating class had 11 kids. He and his girlfriend Maddy Tucker can rattle off the entire faculty by memory: Frederickson, Mayes, Walters …

The last classroom on the right belongs to Jan Barany, who’s taught in this building for more than a decade. With such a small staff, teachers are forced to wear many hats. One wall of Barany’s room features a photo of Einstein. The whiteboard is full of trigonomic equations. Psychology and sociology books share a desk nearby. “Math, Spanish, psychology, history ...” Barany says in reference to her class load, before Vander Esch chimes in.

“This room covers pretty much every subject.”

Barany’s classroom sits next to to a small entryway, home to the display case for all four of Vander Esch’s state championship trophies. Painted on the wall is the school’s slogan: “From Small Beginnings Come Great Things.” That foyer is where a perplexed Andy Avalos stood during his first visit to Salmon River in the spring of 2013.

The Boise State linebackers coach had visited town to get a look at the skinny kid who’d just finished off a state basketball championship run as a junior. At that point, Vander Esch was only a name on paper to people outside the canyon. He’d earned first-team all-state honors in both basketball and football, putting him on Boise State’s radar before any staffer had seen him play a down. He was a whisper among Idaho prep reporters, but little more. “There’s not that many diamonds in the rough anymore—with social media and online [recruiting services] and online highlights that anyone can watch on a cellphone these days,” Avalos says. “His high school didn’t have the online stuff. In our opinion, that’s why he stayed unnoticed to the majority of people.”

When Avalos walked through the front door of Salmon River High, he thought he’d stumbled into an elementary school. There was no athletic office, no clear point of contact on site. Feeling lost, Avalos asked a passing girl, no older than 10, if this was where Leighton Vander Esch went. “The secretary and the fourth-grader, those were my resources that I had to work with,” Avalos says. The girl pointed down the hall, and sure enough, there he was.

Their initial talks were informal, a chance to put face to name. “‘We don’t know much about you,’” Vander Esch says, recalling Avalos’s message, “‘but we’ve been hearing people in the valley say we should be interested in you.’” Any hesitation on Boise’s part came from the quality of Salmon River’s opponents. Evaluating any player at the eight-man level, no matter how spectacular, is complicated. “Long Beach Poly playing Mater Dei, you’re not questioning the level of competition,” Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin says. Eventually, they decided that Vander Esch’s dominance in two sports checked enough boxes to take a chance on him as a preferred walk-on.

During Leighton’s freshman year, the quips came early and often. “Obviously there were jokes in the room with the older guys,” Avalos says. “There are 11 guys on the field now. But more importantly, I think for any player coming into college football, it was about how we [could] develop [his] body.” Avalos nicknamed his new 215-pound linebacker “the baby giraffe,” a nod to his lanky physique. In private, though, Avalos had another animal in mind. Vander Esch’s features, including his long limbs and massive hands, reminded the assistant coach of a puppy yet to grow into its body. “You just look at him, and you could see it,” Avalos says. “He had big wrists, big hands. He probably weighed 195 pounds when he got here, and he could barely fill out the no. 95 jersey that he started out with. But he accelerated quickly.”

On a steady diet of biscuits and gravy—and any food within arm’s reach, really—Vander Esch gained 20 pounds by the end of his redshirt freshman season. The following spring, as the Broncos’ staff surveyed their incoming recruiting class, the coaches outlined the need for a long, athletic linebacker. As he did so many times, Avalos raised his hand on Vander Esch’s behalf. “I said, ‘We already have one and it’s Leighton Vander Esch.’” The prize was a full scholarship, which allowed Leighton to stop heading home on the weekends to work as a guide on the Salmon River. An unimpeded workout schedule served to jump-start his development.

Over the next two seasons, Vander Esch’s role expanded from special-teams contributor to subpackage linebacker. Boise State’s second game of the 2016 campaign came against Washington State and Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, a coverage challenge for such a tall defender. “You see this big ol’ long body playing linebacker and moving in space and doing different things—it was like, wow,” Avalos says.

Vander Esch finished Boise State’s 31-28 win with only two tackles, but in Avalos’s mind, he’d done enough to make it clear: His puppy had transformed into an alpha dog.

The Vander Esch property doubles as a place to store old machinery. Immobile four-wheelers and snowmobiles are grouped together a few feet back of the door. A 1967 Chevy pickup the color of black primer sits nearby; Vander Esch’s sister Shannon is in the middle of restoring it. The home is lined in yellow pine siding that Vander Esch and his father cut a few feet away. Inside, the same hand-cut wood frames the doorways.

The living room contains just a fraction of the family’s animal mounts. Three taxidermied deer heads share a wall with a king salmon that Vander Esch’s mother caught in Alaska. A pair of mountain lions flank the TV, stalking whoever is parked on the couch. And above the sofa, on a wall of its own, hangs a framed photo of Leighton from last season’s Las Vegas Bowl, when Boise State took on Oregon. As Harsin considers Vander Esch’s college career, it’s the first thing that he mentions.

Late in the first quarter, the Ducks threw a swing pass into the flat for speedy running back Tony Brooks-James. Vander Esch not only tracked down the smaller back in space; he lifted Brooks-James into the air, knocking the ball loose and allowing Boise State to recover. The forced fumble was one of Vander Esch’s three tackles for loss on the day. He built a home in the Oregon backfield and refused to leave. The Broncos won, 38-28.

Vander Esch’s stellar showing against Oregon was the exclamation point on an improbable college trajectory. A little more than a year earlier, as Avalos was pushing to expand Vander Esch’s snap count, his burgeoning protégé was forced to miss seven weeks with lingering headaches. What appeared to be concussion-like symptoms turned out to be a neck issue that was easily resolved with a trip to the chiropractor. “It was like, ‘I missed all this time for that?’” Vander Esch says. “That just ate at me, and it still does. If I hadn’t missed that time, people wouldn’t even be questioning me coming out this year.” He still wears a neck brace, but despite rumors of medical red flags, it’s more for comfort than necessity.

Vander Esch returned to the team in late November 2016 against Air Force, an option-heavy team that’s historically given the Broncos trouble. He recorded tackles on his first two plays. “It was weird,” he says. “I was back on the field again, and everything felt so slow to me. It felt like I’d been playing [college] football forever, that I was a senior.”

The subsequent stretch provided affirmation that Vander Esch was on the precipice of another huge leap. In June, Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien told reporters that Vander Esch was the best player on the roster. Last fall, his teammates elected him captain, even though at that point he’d never started a college game. Seemingly overnight, the onetime mystery man had morphed into one of the most visible figures on a perennial Top 25 team. “A lot of things happened very quickly,” Avalos says. “All of a sudden, you’re the face of the program. You’re on the side of the stadium. Which is a blessing, but at the same time, that’s a lot more on a guy’s plate who’d played a lot but hadn’t even been a starter.”

By the time the Broncos’ fall camp began in early August, the gravity of that newfound responsibility began to weigh heavily on him. He was having trouble sleeping. The toll of his academic schedule felt daunting. As he pressed in practice, his game began to lag. “I had to live up to all these expectations, and it was just eating at me,” Vander Esch says. “It was just a lot at the time.”

Eventually, Avalos had seen enough. About a week before the season was set to begin, he called Vander Esch into his office and relayed a simple message: All anyone expects you to be is who you’ve always been. “He just felt like he had to do more, that he had to say more, he had to do more,” Avalos says. “At the end of day, it’s like, ‘Bro, these guys elected you because of what you do. Just do what you normally do. Everything else will take care of itself.’”

Vander Esch still thinks of that conversation anytime stress starts to build. He says it changed the way he thinks. When Boise State’s season began, the player Avalos saw against Air Force was on display every week. In the Broncos’ second game of the season, a 47-44 road loss to Washington State, Vander Esch racked up 16 tackles, including two sacks and a forced fumble. A week later, he registered 13 tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble in a 28-14 win over New Mexico.

Moving into a full-time role afforded him a platform to exhibit his full array of skills. Vander Esch couples the speed to run from sideline to sideline and shadow tight ends up the seam with an expert command of sifting through traffic between the tackles. It’s a talent that Avalos attributes to Vander Esch’s experience playing in the compact world of eight-man football, and that led him to believe that Vander Esch was destined for greater things. “When we hit the middle of October and we started rolling through, we had a pretty good idea we’d have to start looking for another linebacker,” Avalos says.

After terrorizing Oregon in the bowl game, Vander Esch decided to forgo his final year of NCAA eligibility and enter the NFL draft. Avalos is the first person he called with the news. Nothing but encouragement greeted him on the other end of the phone. The man who had always been his champion was there to offer his full-throated belief, one last time. That call ended the same way their talk in August finished—with Avalos telling his prodigal find that if he one day has a son, he’d want him to be like Leighton Vander Esch. “To me,” Vander Esch says, “that’s one of the most special things someone can say to you.”

Leighton Vander Esch tackles Tony Brooks-James, forcing a fumble Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

About a mile and a half from the Vander Esch’s house, on the opposite side of town, sits Mountain River Outfitters. Vander Esch worked as a guide at the rafting company during the summers, scrounging up money for tuition in his days as a walk-on. The lobby of MRO features a full-service coffee bar replete with every flavored syrup in the history of caffeine. A 16-ounce espresso drink will run you $3.50, but on this morning in late March, the caramel latte and black-and-white mocha are both going for three bucks. Those are “Leighton’s Favorites,” as highlighted on the chalkboard in Boise State orange and blue.

MRO is one of seven whitewater tour companies lining Main Street. For most of Riggins’s 217-year history, the town’s economy relied on the timber industry, but when the local mill burned down in 1982, tourism became the central source of income. The calendar in Riggins is mapped out by each season. Winters are for steelhead fishing. Late spring and early June bring the salmon. The start of a sweltering summer means that it’s time to raft. Autumn in northern Idaho means hunting, which Vander Esch started doing on his own at age 10, riding his four-wheeler into the hills to search for grouses.

Six years the junior of his youngest sister, Leighton spent much of his childhood alone. Even among the self-sufficient folks in Riggins, he was uncommonly independent. “When it came to something I didn’t know much about … either it was a gun or a little four-wheeler or something, if it wasn’t working I’d go to Dad,” says Charlie Shepherd Jr., a longtime friend. “But Leighton would be wanting to work on it himself and get it done himself.”

The do-it-yourself approach was a lifelong mandate for the Vander Esch kids. By the time Leighton’s sisters could stand on a crate and reach the top of a horse, they learned how to secure a saddle. In high school, Vander Esch saved $1,200 by building his own metal fender for an old Chevy Colorado. He’s still never taken a car in for maintenance. “You can learn so much just by trying it and doing it,” Vander Esch says. “For me, that’s interesting. I want to figure out how to do something rather than pay someone to do it for me.”

There were times, though, when lessons from that self-sustaining lifestyle could be brutal. One afternoon more than a decade ago, Leighton and his sister Kristin were tasked with fixing a broken wheel on the family’s antique wagon. The wood inside the metal frame had warped, which meant each spoke had to be reattached. They banged away for hours to no avail. Finally, their father relented and chipped in. It took him minutes to finish what had taken his children hours. “It was like, ‘Well this is neat,’” Leighton says, laughing. “He just showed up and did it.”

Leighton’s firsthand education made tinkering a familiar hobby. He mastered different welding techniques, built the family’s coffee table, and learned to repair even the largest pieces of machinery in the yard. Problems were solved and discoveries made solely through trial and error. When it came time to train for the NFL combine, that affinity for experimentation extended to testing the limits of his body. He spent the weeks leading up to the event at the Exos training facility in Arizona, honing his approach for various position drills and adding bulk to his ever-growing frame. The goal was to put on as much weight as possible without losing even a fraction of his burst and explosion. “I just told [the trainers at Exos] my goal weight, and they said, ‘OK, we’ll get you there, and if it slows you down, we’ll back off a bit,’” Vander Esch says. “But I just kept getting faster and more explosive, so there was no reason to pull back.”

Leighton Vander Esch at the NFL combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Measuring sticks came in the form of the three-cone drill and 40-yard dash—in Vander Esch’s mind, the ideal combination of exercises to gauge his movement as he added weight. Once a scrawny kid, he showed up to the combine at 256 pounds, the heaviest linebacker in attendance. He proceeded to clock a 4.65-second 40-yard dash, record the fifth-fastest three-cone time at his position, and finish tied for second in the vertical leap with a mind-blowing jump of 39.5 inches. His NBA-type hops didn’t surprise anyone who had ever seen Vander Esch stuff a basketball. At Boise State’s annual Bronco Olympics last fall, the entire gym stopped to gawk at the aerial display he completed with ease. “He goes in there and frickin’ throws one down,” Harsin says. “Everyone in the gym was like, ‘OK, this guy, athletically, you’ve just got to give him his respect.’”

Vander Esch’s physical gifts have never been in question, but Avalos says that he’s come across plenty of players with absurd athleticism. What sets Vander Esch apart is his combination of rare traits and well-honed instincts. “That’s the hard part of finding guys to play inside linebacker, is getting ones who are able to build on their natural skills and develop that feel of playing in the box,” Avalos says. “For him, I think it was there.”

With the draft just days away, the consensus is that Vander Esch is a virtual lock to come off the board in the first round, a likelihood that would have felt like fiction as recently as last summer. “In my heart, I always knew I was that good of a prospect,” Vander Esch says. “There was no reason I shouldn’t put myself in a position to be that.”

Two foam pads line the bed of Vander Esch’s white pickup, which idles in the clearing atop his family’s land. A couple of nights before that breakfast at River Rock Cafe, Leighton, Maddy, and her brother decided to sleep in the truck, under nothing but the stars. Even in late March, with snow still packed on the ground in the neighboring towns, they needed only sleeping bags to stay warm in the canyon. “There’s a lot of people who don’t realize what’s out there in the world,” Vander Esch says as he gazes down the mountain, hands in his faded jean pockets. “This is what’s beautiful to me. A bunch of people have been confined to cities their whole lives, but there’s so much out there. And you can’t believe it until you see it.”

Nearby, his chestnut horse Vick stands up. A brown mule named Brandy joins him. They roam free on the land, limited by only the fences that surround the edges of the 300-acre parcel.

His father’s business conventions and travel basketball trips gave Vander Esch the chance to see much of the country by the time he finished high school. He’d visit places like Los Angeles and marvel at how life there must be. “I was experiencing every lifestyle there is, pretty much, and there was no other lifestyle like this,” he says of his home. An NFL career means settling outside of Idaho for the first time. He’ll leave behind the quiet hunting mornings, rafting trips, and salmon fishing expeditions for the bustle of a city like Philadelphia or New Orleans. They’re all worthwhile sacrifices in pursuit of a dream that once seemed so remote. “Whether it’s a few years down the road or when I’m done with my NFL career, I know I’m always going to make my way back to something like this,” Vander Esch says. “I’m not a big fan of the flat land.”

He ambles back to the truck, past the horses, onto the rock-and-clay road, and starts the steep descent down the hill. A few hours later, the sun will dip behind the mountains, but the warmth will linger. Heat burns longer in the canyon.

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