The Cowboys are currently in the midst of a huge midseason turnaround. It wasn’t all that long ago when Dallas was sitting at 3-5 and fans of the silver and blue were already looking forward to ‘Mock Draft SZN’ as the season looked to be a disappointment. Many wondered about who would Jerry Jones bring in to replace Jason Garrett, and if it was a terrible mistake to give up a premium draft pick for a wide receiver that had some inconsistencies.
It is December 11th, and the Dallas Cowboys are sitting at 8-5, have a two-game lead in the NFC East, and are nearly hitting on all cylinders as the defense continues to play at an elite level and the offense has shown signs of life since the addition of Amari Cooper.
One of the most important players on this team is in his first season on the professional level and just five years away from starring in eight-man football. He was welcomed to a mixed response when his name was called in the draft. Yet, Leighton Vander Esch has performed like a star for a defensive unit that caused all kinds of problems for Drew Brees and the prolific Saints offensive attack.
Vander Esch remembers what it was like when the Cowboys were sitting in the 3-5 hole following the loss to Washington prior to the bye week. Everybody outside of the locker room had given up on the season. LVE wrote a really impressive piece for the Player’s Tribune, outlining the team’s mindset following that Washington game, what it is like to play for the Dallas Cowboys, and why America’s Team was always where he wanted to be.
There were no other options.
When the Cowboys’ season was in deep trouble, Jason Garrett explained to the team that they had no option but to win out. To take matters into their own hands. There just wasn’t any other option for the Cowboys at that point if time. They couldn’t count on losses by their divisional foes.
“There’s no margin for error now,” [Garrett] tells us, with this fired-up look in his eye. “We got ourselves into this position. And now it’s up to us to get us out of it.”
And sitting there, in that meeting, you could tell guys were hearing him. There was just a certain vibe in that room, you know what I mean? Like guys were fully realizing that our season was at a critical point.
Then Coach spent a bunch of time talking from the heart about adversity, and fighting through, and how the only way to get beyond tough times is to put your head down and push forward. I guess sometimes that stuff can come off as corny or whatever, but that whole moment — the talk, the realness of it all, the whole do-or-die thing — it all just really resonated.
We totally bought in, each and every one of us. We were all just like, “He’s right. This is on us. We gotta to get through this and not have this bad start define our season.”
And, I don’t know, it’s almost like this team has been on a mission ever since.
Now, the Dallas Cowboys may not necessarily need to win out. The team sits in very good position atop of the division and at the number four spot in the NFC Playoffs heading into a road battle with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. But, the point is this: the Cowboys responded to what Garrett told them — and in a big way.
Sean Lee inspired him.
Sean Lee will go down as one of the best linebackers to wear the silver and blue. Despite dealing with nagging injuries that have kept him on the sideline, Lee commands the defense and plays at an extremely high level when his body allows him. The Penn State product has grown into an elite NFL linebacker, and the newest Cowboys linebacker recalls watching Lee make plays on the field.
Back then, I’d totally key in on Sean Lee. I’d focus on that guy like nobody’s business. Just always watching his technique and trying to learn little things from how he always seemed to be in the exact right place on every play.
To this day, I still remember talking with a good friend of mine in high school and him telling me, “Man, I can see it now. You’re gonna be a Sean Lee yourself one day.”
I gotta say … nothing made me happier than hearing someone say that. It was, for me, the ultimate compliment.
Where did ‘Wolf Hunter’ come from?
Every special player deserves a cool nickname. For Leighton Vander Esch, the term Wolf Hunter has caught on over the course of the rookie’s impressive 2018 season. Vander Esch explains how that came to be. It started with a conversation some Cowboys coaches had with LVE at the combine, a conversation that centered on... hunting.
During that conversation I ended up showing Coach Richard a bunch of pictures on my phone of me hunting wolves, and he just kind of ran with it. From that point on, he didn’t really even call me by my name, it was just The Wolf Hunter. Pretty soon that’s what everyone on the staff was calling me throughout the pre-draft process.
Now that I’m here, and playing for the Cowboys, it’s just taken off like crazy.
I see signs everywhere. Fans are shouting it when I walk by.
And that’s been the big thing for me. From the very first time I heard it, I thought it was a pretty cool nickname, but when the fans started taking to it … that’s when I was completely sold.
Leighton Vander Esch has been under the radar all of his life. From playing eight-man football in Idaho to walking on for the Boise State Broncos, there has not been a ton of attention on LVE.
That all changed when the Dallas Cowboys used its first-round draft choice on the linebacker from the state known for potatoes.
So the coolest thing about getting drafted in the first round this spring out of Boise wasn’t the fact that I got picked early and had made it to the NFL. I truly believed that was always my destiny.
Instead, the coolest thing for me was … where I ended up.
I mean … Dallas? The Cowboys? America’s Team? Are you kidding me?
Vander Esch explained that the Cowboys was the team he always wanted to suit up for, dating back to his days in Riggins, Idaho.
This is exactly where I was hoping to end up. As a kid in Riggins, I didn’t really have a local NFL team to root for, so I always ended up watching Dallas games and just being in awe of everything about the team and how the Cowboys did things.
LVE expects to be here.
One of the things I liked about LVE’s piece was about how confident he is and how he expects to make plays. He expects to be an impact player. It has certainly shown this season, making plays all over the football field.
And don’t get me wrong, I understand why lots of people focus on my unique background beyond the wolf hunting part. I don’t hold that against anyone. I realize how improbable my story seems — not many college walk-ons from Riggins, Idaho, go on to be first-round NFL draft picks.
But you know what? I’d be lying if I tried to sit here and write that it’s been a huge surprise to me how things worked out, and that I can’t believe I made it to where I am today.
Honestly, I expected this — playing at this level, in the NFL, and making an immediate impact for my team. I’ve envisioned myself in this position ever since I was a young boy. And not just like as a ridiculous dream or something. From almost as early as I can remember, I was convinced that I was going to be a professional football player. I was never not going to play in the NFL. I was bound and determined and serious about that. I trusted it would happen, and I went with it. With my entire mind and body. I was never cocky or conceited about it. I stayed humble. And worked hard. But I envisioned this as something I actually knew in my heart that I would accomplish. Not hoped. Not wished.
The entire article gives you some insight on who this phenom linebacker is, thoughts on Kris Richard and Sean Lee, and more. Take the time out of your day to read it!