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'He's helped us out in so many ways': Leighton Vander Esch surprises alma mater with new weight room, uniforms

Riggins native Leighton Vander Esch continues to give back, replacing 15-year-old football jerseys with brand new Nike sets.

RIGGINS, Idaho — He may be 2,000 miles away in Dallas, Texas, but Riggins native Leighton Vander Esch is making sure his roots are taken care of.

When he originally negotiated his contract with Nike, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker specifically requested that they take care of his alma mater, Salmon River High School.

That included new jerseys for the entire football program.

The last time the school purchased jerseys was back in 2004 before Vander Esch was even in high school.

"The [old] ones, they were the stickers and they're peeling off," senior Ethan Shepherd said. "These are definitely an upgrade."

"Grandmas had sewn them together multiple times, we had tape on the inside of the pants to hold the pads in," first-year head coach Ty Medley said. "It was time."

Vander Esch designed them himself, modeling them after Boise State's uniforms.

"He was really involved in the whole process," Medley said. "He wanted to really help out and kind of put his stamp on it."

This fall, the Savages will don a blue set and a white set, each with yellow and blue chevron stripes on the shoulders and pants.

And just like Boise State's uniforms, those stripes symbolize speed.

"We know how young guys are, they want to look good and play good and feel good, that's part of the process and Leighton made that happen for them," Medley said.

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"A lot of people would argue that you don't have to look good to play good, but I think when you look at your teammates and they look good, and you look at yourself, and you look good, I think that gives you... more confidence," Shepherd said. "That can be all the difference between completing the pass and [incomplete] it."

"He was able to give them something that even he didn't have access to when he was in school here."

That also includes a modern weight room, complete with a state-of-the-art stereo system and new equipment.

HIGHLIGHTS: Salmon River vs. Notus (2018)

MORE: Riggins celebrates hometown hero, Vander Esch

Medley says the old gym was torn up and rusty, with the carpet coming unglued and torn.

"Half the time we'd fix it, we'd go run to the hardware store so we could fix it and use it," Medley said. "We did with what we had and we made it work."

"Before, in the old weight room, we were getting three or four kids was pretty average, but now in the mornings we get anywhere from eight to 10," Medley said. 

He says even some of the female athletes get in and use the weight room.

"It's night and day compared to what we used to have," Shepherd said. "I've never even been in a weight room near this nice."

"It's huge. Small schools in general, don't get a lot of new stuff, but between the gym and jerseys and stuff, it's huge for the kids."

MORE: Vander Esch drafted by the Dallas Cowboys

Another part of Vander Esch's deal with Nike includes $5,000 per year for the school to use on equipment and jerseys.

And because of that, the money the school would have eventually spent on those items, it can now be shifted elsewhere.

"It's freed up some funds for other things, other stuff that's needed," Medley said. "I think that's the biggest deal is that it makes everything more efficient and we're going a little bit further with what we can do."

According to Leighton's agent Ron Slavin, he's already donated close to $100,000.

"It's pretty amazing to stick that hand out and help somebody out when you've got the chance," Medley said.

In his rookie season, Vander Esch logged 176 tackles, the most by a Cowboy rookie in 41 years.

He also had two interceptions, 111 solo tackles, two tackles-for-loss, started 13 games and was named to the 2019 Pro Bowl.

Dallas opens their season at home against the New York Giants on Sunday, September 8.

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