Cowboys defenders Leighton Vander Esch (left) and Micah Parsons

Cowboys defenders Leighton Vander Esch (left) and Micah Parsons


Cowboys defenders Leighton Vander Esch (left) and Micah Parsons

On Monday, what we’ve pretty much known since Week 5 of the NFL season, after Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch collided with Micah Parsons as he was being blocked by Trent Williams of the 49ers, became official: Vander Esch is retiring at age 28, the pain of multiple neck injuries proving too much to play through.

It ends what started as a brilliant career, when Vander Esch was a rookie Pro Bowler who also earned second-team All-Pro honors. He had been the Cowboys’ first-round pick, No. 19 overall, out of Boise State, and recorded 140 tackles with two interceptions and seven passes defensed in his first NFL season back in 2018.

But the neck problems stared thereafter, and he was diagnosed with a narrow spinal column. Vander Esch had spinal fusion surgery in 2019 which, the Dallas Morning News reported at the time, “The development is expected to allow the Cowboys linebacker a full recovery but could have career longevity implications.”

Five injury-riddled years later, that has proven to be true. Parsons, the star Cowboys edge rusher, gave the team’s fans a warning on Twitter/X: They’ll miss what Vander Esch brought to the field.

“I don’t think people realize how much yall are going to miss Leighton!! I mean one of the hardest, most devoted, loving, authentic teammate you could ever have!! Cowboys nation should be grateful he represented the star! Ima miss his passion and drive on the field!!” he wrote.

Leighton Vander Esch’s ‘Future Is Very Bright’

Indeed, it was a day for tips of the cap to Vander Esch, whose absence last year was one reason the Cowboys defense–which sorely lacked depth at linebacker–struggled at times to stop the run and defend the middle of the field.

Vander Esch was never quite the same after his rookie year, but he was a smart, tough presence when he was on the field. The Cowboys, reading the writing on the wall last week, officially released him before he announced his retirement.

Vander Esch’s story was one that fans could get behind–he grew up in rural Idaho and played 8-man football through high school, only playing standard football when he got to college.

In a statement, owner Jerry Jones wrote: “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.

“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.”

Cowboys Added Eric Kendricks at LB

As for Vander Esch, he thanked the Cowboys organization and stated, “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.”

On the field, the Cowboys now have the challenge of replacing Vander Esch. That won’t be easy. Last year, they bumped up combo safety Markquese Bell–all 205 pounds of him–to fill in for Vander Esch next to Damone Clark.

This year, the Cowboys have addressed the linebacker spot with a more reliable answer, adding former Chargers star Eric Kendricks while also hoping that 2023 draftee DeMarvion Overshown is back and productive after missing last year with an ACL injury.


Sean Deveney is a veteran sports reporter covering the NBA, NFL and MLB for He has written for Heavy since 2019 and has more than two decades of experience covering the NBA, including 17 years as the lead NBA reporter for the Sporting News. Deveney is the author of 7 nonfiction books, including “Fun City,” “Before Wrigley became Wrigley,” and “Facing Michael Jordan.” More about Sean Deveney

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