Leighton Vander Esch retiring after release from Cowboys

FRISCO, Texas — Former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is retiring after dealing with recurring neck issues in his six-year career.

A first-round pick in 2018, Vander Esch set a Cowboys’ rookie record with 176 tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl as his “Wolf Hunter” nickname became a signature call during games. He entered the NFL with questions about his neck and missed time because of neck injuries in 2019, 2022 and 2023.

Vander Esch, 28, had surgery after missing seven of the final nine games in 2019 and suffered a stinger that caused him to miss the final four regular-season games in 2022 but returned for the playoffs. Last season, he had an awkward collision with Micah Parsons after being pushed from behind by left tackle Trent Williams in the second quarter of the Cowboys’ Week 5 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Vander Esch did not play again, and his retirement was expected. Last week, the Cowboys released him with a failed physical designation.

“I love the game of football so much, and my body won’t cooperate any longer,” Vander Esch said Monday in a statement. “I cherished every moment of my NFL career, and it has been such a blessing to play the game for as long as I have played.”

In a statement posted to Instagram, Vander Esch said, “It has been an honor to represent my family, my teammates and the people of Dallas.”

After learning under Sean Lee for three seasons, Vander Esch became the leader of the defense in recent years. His absence proved problematic for the run defense in the past two seasons and the Cowboys needed to convert safety Markquese Bell to linebacker in 2023.

Growing up in Riggins, Idaho, Vander Esch played eight-man football at Salmon River High School before starring at Boise State. He and his wife, Maddy, had their first child, a daughter, in January.

“Seldom do you come across a player like Leighton, who grew up playing eight-man football only to first play the 11-man game at the major collegiate level and excel,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said in a statement. “His passion and love for the game was contagious, and from the moment he arrived, he has been a difference maker. His grit, toughness, motivation, determination and football IQ will be sorely missed. Leighton also embodied the strong character and personal qualities that make him much more than an accomplished player.

“I love the game of football so much, and my body won’t cooperate any longer. I cherished every moment of my NFL career, and it has been such a blessing to play the game for as long as I have played.”

Leighton Vander Esch

“He was a leader and the kind of teammate that impacted those around him in the best ways. Leighton’s playing career may have come to an end, but his future is very bright. On behalf of the entire Dallas Cowboys organization, we’re proud that he wore the star on his helmet, we thank him and we wish all the best to Leighton, his wife, Madalynn, and their young daughter.”

Coach Mike McCarthy said in the statement, “Leighton is exactly the kind of player and person a coach feels very fortunate to have on their team. His leadership, character, perseverance, dedication and will to win were all at the highest level, not to mention his ability to play the game. Leighton impacted our team beyond defense. He set a tone that served as an example for all of our players about how we want to play. Having a teammate like Leighton is something everyone on our staff and in our locker room valued greatly, and we’re going to miss him. I wish Leighton, his wife Madalynn and their daughter the best and know that he’s going to continue living life to the fullest.”

For his career, Vander Esch was credited with 469 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 13 quarterback pressures, 13 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries, one of which led to a touchdown last season in a win against the New England Patriots.

The Cowboys prepared for life without Vander Esch by signing veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks to a one-year deal last week. Kendricks had played for new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer for seven seasons.

First appeared on www.espn.com

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