This Day In Sports: From 8-man football to the NFL podium

April 26, 2018: Leighton Vander Esch becomes the fifth first-round NFL Draft pick in Boise State history when he’s selected No. 19 overall by the Dallas Cowboys.The story was an incredible one—a guy who played eight-man football at Salmon River High and walked on with the Broncos before morphing into a Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and an early entrant into the draft. Much of the town of Riggins (population 419, as America found out that night via an ESPN graphic) crowded into Summerville’s bar to watch the draft and erupted into raucous cheers when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell read Vander Esch’s name.

Vander Esch was the toast of Big D the following day, getting a helicopter ride to his official introductory press conference at “The Star” complex in Frisco and comparing his LVE fan bus to Jerry Jones’ luxury rig. At that time, the Cowboys already had Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence on the roster and were hours away from adding Cedrick Wilson. KTVB’s Jay Tust asked then-Dallas coach Jason Garrett after the presser what it is about the Broncos that attracts the Cowboys (this was the day before they selected Wilson). “We love the Boise State guys,” said Garrett. “There’s something about the culture up there—they know how to work, they love football.”

Not only did Vander Esch walk on at Boise State, he was named a team captain before he had even started a game. Then he put together one of the best seasons ever seen on the Blue in 2017. LVE’s interception in the final moments of the Mountain West championship game clinched a title for the Broncos. The last memory we have of Vander Esch in blue and orange is his dominant performance against Justin Herbert and Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. His NFL career was cut short by a lingering neck injury, and he retired six weeks ago. LVE made 469 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions in his six seasons. His only NFL touchdown came in what turned out to be his second-to-last career game—on an 11-yard fumble recovery in a 38-3 victory over New England last October.

Here’s a copy ‘n paste from the Scott Slant column on March 6, 2014—hope you enjoy it: “This guy will bear watching the next four or five years. It’s flown under the radar a bit, but Boise State did land Idaho 1A Player of the Year Leighton Vander Esch as a preferred walk-on. Vander Esch was everything to Salmon River High as it racked up a 12-0 season and a second straight state championship. Vander Esch, a 6-4, 210-pounder (for now), played quarterback, middle linebacker and kicker. On offense he was responsible for 68 Salmon River touchdowns last year. Vander Esch had eight TDs in the Savages’ 66-26 rout of Council in the state title game on the blue turf in November. Prediction: he’ll earn a scholarship before too terribly long.”

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)

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