BOISE, Idaho — Former Boise State and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was back in Boise this weekend hosting his annual youth football camp at Bishop Kelly High School.
Vander Esch said the camp is an opportunity to give back to a state that means so much to him and his family.
“I was a kid at one point and I remember what it was like going to Boise games and watching those guys and looking up to them," Vander Esch said. "Even high school players at that age, when you’re in junior high and elementary, you look up to those players like they’re huge role models to you. Being out here, I was a kid. I remember being at camps and how it made me feel, it’s the reason I do what I do."
Last year’s annual camp was postponed due to the pandemic, so this weekend’s camp had built up mutual excitement for both campers and the former Bronco All-American.
“I’m having a blast. I’m sweating a lot, I thought I was in good shape, but these kids have me working," Vander Esch said. "It’s fun, I’m having fun out here. It’s a bummer we couldn’t do this last year obviously because of COVID, but I’m just happy that these parents and the kids stuck with it for this year."
Being back in Boise also provides the former 8-man football star at Salmon-River High School the opportunity to catch up with his former defensive coordinator at Boise State and current Broncos head coach, Andy Avalos.
“I met with him (Friday), we had lunch. It was good catching up with everybody. Coach D (Spencer Danielson), seeing Matt (Miller) there, all of the guys, it’s a special, special atmosphere and I think he’s bringing that intensity and that focus to this program and I’m just excited to see what these guys can do here," Vander Esch said. "(Andy) gets his players to buy in and he gains their trust and their respect and it’s a two-way street and I think he realizes that. That’s what makes him such a special guy. He’s like my second father. I love the guy to death and I’m fortunate enough to meet him and know him and have that relationship with him and I know all of the players at Boise State feel the exact same way."
On the field, the former 2018 first-round draft pick is heading into a pivotal year with the Cowboys. Dallas elected not to pick up his fifth-year contract option, but they do hope to re-sign him once his current rookie deal expires following the culmination of the 2021 season.
"Oh, it’s a big year. Everyone knows it, I know it, but nothing’s changed," Vander Esch said. "I still have to go out there and do my job, just like always. Pressure is pressure, it is what it is, put it on me and we’ll get it done."
Vander Esch earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2018 but has battled some injury issues since that rookie campaign. He heads into year four in Dallas, with a continued focus on working out and adding strength in the weight room.
“Took a week and a half off right after the season, got back to Idaho, got to see my family, and then I went right back to the facility and have been training there all spring. Building my body armor, getting stronger, studying film, getting in that playbook," Vander Esch said. "You’re always trying to improve your game, no matter what it is. I can improve in so many areas, that’s the mission, that’s the goal that I’ve been on. I think it’s going to be a good year for us, I’m excited to be a part of that group, we got a good thing going. Dan Quinn and Mike McCarthy, they’re awesome guys, our whole defensive staff, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about them, so I’m excited."
Vander Esch is one of numerous former Boise State players within the Cowboys organization, including former Bronco safety Darian Thompson and defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence.
“It’s special. I feel like I’m in college," he said. "Anytime you can carry that atmosphere over to the professional level, I think it just sets you up with success that much more, being able to be around the dudes that you grew up with and played ball with in college, it’s awesome."
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