As Leighton Vander Esch walked through the door to the Mizzen+Main clothing store in Uptown Dallas recently, silver and blue confetti shot up into the air. The Dallas Cowboys linebacker smiled widely as the 60 or so people inside the establishment cheered. For the next two hours, Vander Esch, wearing a blue blazer, crisp jeans and a Mizzen+Main dress shirt, worked the room at a private fundraising event.
A year ago, Vander Esch was finding his way as a rookie. Now, he is considered one of the best young linebackers in the NFL, and he is a spokesperson for a rapidly-growing clothier with the likes of golf icon Phil Mickelson, Houston Texans star pass-rusher J.J. Watt and Arizona Cardinals‘ No. 1 pick Kyler Murray.
“I don’t know if I would’ve been able to tell you if you were crazy or if I would’ve believed you,” Vander Esch said on his rise in fame.
Two years ago, Vander Esch, 23, was something of an unknown outside of Boise State University, a former walk-on who had played eight-man football at Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho. He was a T-shirt and sweatpants kind of guy, like a lot of college kids.
“Leighton’s a serious guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, which we feel aligns with our brand,” said Stephanie Swingle, Mizzen+Main’s chief marketing officer. “Also, it’s been fantastic to see him interacting with people during our engagements on set or at our retail events. They’re genuinely welcomed by Leighton. and we’re excited to see his personality come through.”
Vander Esch’s popularity grew rapidly last season. His No. 55 jersey was No. 1 in sales from November to December, and he finished the season with the 49th-most-popular jersey. According to Fanatics, a jersey tracking site, he is currently inside the top 25.
Vander Esch knows none of the off-field recognition comes without the on-field success. His agent, Ron Slavin, estimates Vander Esch has passed on marketing deals that could have paid him in the high six-figures.
“He’s very conscious of how he is viewed by the fan base and also ownership, coaches and teammates,” Slavin said. “He told us he doesn’t want to do more than one thing a week, so he can focus on the opponent and the job at hand. I think a lot of people get so worried about off-the-field money and what they can do, they lose focus of what to do on the field.”
Last season, the Cowboys’ coaches credited him with a team-high 176 tackles, a franchise rookie record. He recorded his 200th career tackle in Week 3 this season against the Miami Dolphins, reaching that mark in 19 games, the quickest ever by a Cowboys defender. Dexter Coakley, who played linebacker for Dallas from 1997 to 2004, reached 200 tackles in 24 games.
After his rookie season, Vander Esch unplugged for a while back in Idaho. He and his then-fiancée, Maddy, bought a camper and spent time relaxing near a lake. Later in the summer, they got married and spent their honeymoon in the Bahamas, where they swam with sharks.
“I think it’s really important if you can get your mind off things when you have a break,” Vander Esch said. “It helps you in the long run. Guys like us, how competitive we are, it’s hard for us to shut our minds off. We’re always thinking, always locked in, always in compete mode. You love the game and you’re going to be that way every day once it’s back to football, but it’s important to decompress.”
So far this season, he is second to Jaylon Smith in tackles with 37, by the coaches’ count. He had the first half-sack of his career in the season opener, and he has three quarterback hurries after posting five as a rookie. He has forced a fumble and knocked down two passes.
“He’s like a power forward out there playing football,” Cowboys defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard said. “Every bit the height. Every bit the length. Every bit the weight. He’s got power. He’s got speed. He’s got anticipation.”
“One step makes a huge difference,” Vander Esch said. “Obviously, if you’re in better position to make a tackle when you’re farther up on him or to fit him up, that can give you a chance to go after the ball more. If you’re in better pass coverage, you can go for a [pass breakup] and that leads to more interceptions.”
In Sunday’s 12-10 loss at the New Orleans Saints, Vander Esch was credited with 15 tackles, his first game with double-digit tackles this season. As a rookie, he had 11 games with 10 or more tackles, and that helped set up his goals for his second season.
“One-up myself in every single area,” Vander Esch said. “Just keep improving. Constant improvement. I always set a high bar for myself. Always. So I mean obviously I’m trying to be an All-Pro again. First team instead of second team. Make it back to the Pro Bowl. But the biggest goal obviously is to win a Super Bowl. That’s always been my highest goal ever since I was little. I think that’s everybody on this team’s biggest goal. That would mean the most.”
If winning the Super Bowl happens, more and more off-field opportunities await.