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Enter The Wolf Hunter

Dec 11 2018
Photo by
Ryan Kang/AP Images
Photo by
Ryan Kang/AP Images
Leighton Vander Esch
Dallas Cowboys
Dec 11 2018
I

’m not a big fan of the whole “Plan B” thing.

I mean, you hear people all the time be like, “If what I really want to happen doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll go with Plan B.” And I get it. I really do. But sometimes, there’s no room for a Plan B, you know? Sometimes in life it’s just gotta be Plan A or bust.

Like: No alternatives. One path. Period.

That was definitely my mindset growing up (more on that in a bit), and — now that I think about it — that do-or-die, go-for-broke mentality is one this Cowboys team ended up adopting earlier in the season.

Flashback to about five weeks ago.

We’re sitting there at 3–5, coming off an ugly loss on Monday night to the Titans. It seems like maybe our shot at the playoffs is slipping away. Everything’s just … bad. We still believed in each other at that point, of course, but our record wasn’t what we needed it to be. There’s only so many games in a season. And halfway through, it was just not looking good for us. At all.

So we show up at the facility, and Coach Garrett sits us all down in the team room.

He doesn’t beat around the bush. He just puts it out there.

“There’s no margin for error now,” he 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.”

Our season was on the line. Backs against the wall. The only option out there was to win the rest of our games.

Our season was on the line. Backs against the wall. The only option out there was to win the rest of our games.

That was it. There wasn’t an alternative route.

It wasn’t like we could somehow lose a few more games and just bank on the Redskins and Eagles losing some too.

No.

We’re 3–5. We need to go out and win all of our games now. That’s what he’s telling us.

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, five weeks later, we’re 8–5. We’ll be going for our sixth straight win this coming weekend.

So, yeah….

Do or die. No alternatives. No Plan B’s.

Just go out and do what you need to do. Period.

Roger Steinman/AP Images

And, man, I gotta say … this so fun right now.

Just flying around. Hitting people. Making plays.

I’m loving every minute of this, that’s for sure — just living in the moment, and having the time of my life. And this run we’ve been on has definitely made my rookie season in Dallas even more incredible than I could’ve ever imagined.

By now I guess a lot of football fans have heard my story: Small-town Idaho kid, no 11-on-11 football team in high school, too skinny to get any Division I offers, had to walk on at Boise … all that stuff. Cowboys fans are probably sick of hearing it at this point. And it does kind of get old after a while talking about those same things over and over again. (Hopefully, after a little time, my play on the field will speak for itself, and people will focus on that more than on how much I weighed in high school or how many people live in my hometown.)

But the whole wolf hunter thing? I mean … that’s different.

That’s the one part of my story, and my background, that definitely looks like it’s here to stay. And I really do kind of feel like it was a big part of why I ended up in Dallas.

I know that probably sounds crazy, but when I met with a bunch of Cowboys coaches for my formal interview at the combine, we honestly talked more about hunting than football. It was maybe a minute or two of me introducing myself, and a few quick football questions, but then the rest of the time was all about….

Hunting.

It was pretty neat, actually. I was like, Hmm, this is a little bit different. But I loved that those guys wanted to learn more about my interests, and the personal side of things beyond football.

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.

I love our fans. They’re the most passionate sports fans in the world, and I have so much respect for them. So if they love the nickname, and are excited about it … then I love it, too. And I’m gonna roll with it from here on out.

I have to admit, I never imagined that I’d find myself in front of a national TV audience, rising up after a stop and giving a super loud wolf howl.

But, you know … here we are. And there’s no way I’m looking back now.

I’m good with being The Wolf Hunter™.

Ron Jenkins/AP Images

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.

Knew.

Along the way, there’s been hundreds of people who have told me that I’d never make it. Thousands, maybe.

All I ever heard as a kid was, “Well, you may want to have a backup plan, too.”

But I never, ever took on that perspective. I wasn’t having it.

Make no mistake about it….

There was no Plan B.

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?

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.

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.

Now, a few years later, I have the privilege and absolute honor of being Sean’s teammate and learning from him — from one of the very best linebackers ever to play this game. I mean, his preparation and mentality and approach is … I don’t even know if I can come up with a word for it. I guess the best I can do is miraculous.

I’ve never experienced anything like it. Sean’s on a whole other level, and it’s awesome to be around a guy like him and have him help me get better as a player. I learn something new from him every single day. And both he and Jaylon took me under their wing as soon as I was drafted. They made sure that I felt welcomed and that I was going to do everything in my power to reach my full potential.

It’s been no looking back for me from there.

Really, it couldn’t get any better than this. Those guys, this city, our team, this fan base … all of it really is just first-class in every way.

I mean … Dallas? The Cowboys? America’s Team? Are you kidding me?

And now that we’ve been playing well, and winning all these games, the big question seems to be: Can we keep this up?

Especially after we beat the Saints, people want to know if we can keep this going and prove that we’re among the best teams in the NFC. Like was that big win over New Orleans a fluke, or can we play even better as the season advances? And, well….

Yes.

We can.

There’s always room for improvement, and I feel like we’re only now coming into our own, especially on defense. We’re just now starting to show real consistency from week to week, series to series, play to play. And getting Sean back and healthy again is only going to make us that much better. As long as we keep doing what we’re doing as a defense, I feel that the sky’s the limit for this team because this offense just keeps making strides each week. Zeke is rolling. Dak’s making plays inside and outside the pocket. Amari has given us another big-play option. And that O-line is getting after it.

We’re good.

And we’re just going to keep getting better.

We’ve really only just scratched the surface of how good we can be.

Roger Steinman/AP Images

And for me, personally, this is definitely just the beginning. I’m only just getting started.

But I gotta say: It’s been a hell of a fun start!

And I can’t wait to see where things go from here. Because I have a feeling it’s only going to get better with time. I’m just going to continue working my tail off to be the best, most consistent player I can possibly be. That’s how I’m built. It’s the only way I know. Full-on. All out.

Every once in a while people will ask me what I would’ve done if I hadn’t reached my goal of making it to the NFL — if my Plan A didn’t work out. It’s like, “What would you be doing right now if you didn’t get drafted, and if no NFL team had a spot for you?”

I think they probably assume I’m going to say that I’d be a wilderness guide, or a park ranger or something.

Nope. Not even close.

“I’d be in the gym every day, on my own, still training and working my butt off to make it to the NFL.”

That’s no joke. For real.

Plan A, man.

All the way.

Leighton Vander Esch
Dallas Cowboys