HOWL­ING SUC­CESS

Cow­boys’ rookie line­backer grew up in hunt­ing fam­ily

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Jori Ep­stein

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 of his hunt­ing child­hood. “I feel like that was a lot of the start of ev­ery­thing.”

The adren­a­line of hunt­ing, the fear of fall­ing off the moun­tain on 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.

Wolf howls screeched through loud­speak­ers.

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.”

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 the league), he honed his ath­leti­cism in a 50-by-70foot 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.

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

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

He then 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 pre-draft 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, 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.”

The Cow­boys’ first-round se­lec­tion of Van­der Esch en­sured that. 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 lead­ing him to be named NFC de­fen­sive player of the week be­fore he was awarded de­fen­sive rookie of the month.

“It gave me chills, man. The hairs on the back of my neck

stood up.” Ezekiel El­liott Cow­boys run­ning back on rookie team­mate Leighton Van­der Esch and his wolf howl cel­e­bra­tion

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 a sec­ond-and-5 re­jec­tion of Alvin Ka­mara along­side Jay­lon Smith in the third quar­ter of the Cow­boys’ 13-10 win over the Saints.

But in a 28-14 loss to the Ti­tans on Nov. 5, Van­der Esch missed not one but two tack­les.

“That’s the most missed tack­les I’ve had in for­ever,” Van­der Esch told USA TO­DAY. “Those two bother me. I still think about it. That ir­ri­tates me.”

When he re­turned home from Dal­las’ 22-19 win over At­lanta, which his goalline stop of Austin Hooper and in­ter­cep­tion off Calvin Ri­d­ley’s hands helped se­cure, he 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.” Tucker’s ac­cus­tomed to re­spond­ing to the sky-high stan­dard Van­der Esch sets.

“I still love you,” she tells her fi­ancée, whom she’ll wed July 13, 2019. “I don’t re­ally care, but I’m sorry it makes you mad.”

Against the Ea­gles, Van­der Esch in­ter­cepted Car­son Wentz and tripped Corey Cle­ment with two min­utes to play for a key 5-yard loss to main­tain Dal­las’ 27-20 lead. He said 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, Van­der Esch will chase that goal with fewer snaps, though “equally ef­fec­tive,” head coach Ja­son Gar­rett said. Lee, Van­der Esch and Jay­lon Smith will ro­tate, a depth is­sue Jones and the front of­fice are thrilled to have.

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.”

PHOTO VIA VAN­DER ESCH

Cow­boys rookie line­backer Leighton Van­der Esch holds a wolf on one of his hunt­ing trips.

MATTHEW EMMONS/ USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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