RIGGINS, Idaho -- The guide easily moves the whitewater raft back and forth across the Salmon River as if he had been doing this his entire life. About 150 yards up, he studies the rapids at Fiddle Creek, looking for the best route to mix heart-pounding excitement with safety for the other eight people in the raft.
"Paddle forward," he yells as the raft approaches the rapids, wanting to build momentum.
As the rapids hit, he yells out, "Hard," and for the briefest of moments, water crashes all around the raft.
"OK, all set," the guide says as the rapids calm.
Leighton Vander Esch has guided whitewater tours for Mountain River Outfitters since he was 18, but his burgeoning football career has interrupted a summer job the past few years. With the Dallas Cowboys' training camp in Oxnard, California, just two weeks away, this will be the only time the first-round pick navigates the river.
'We're not big enough to have separate schools'
Riggins sits in a canyon between the Salmon River and Little Salmon River, 150 miles north of Boise. The sign greeting visitors along Highway 95 says Riggins has 410 residents. There might be fewer or a few more.
"I'm proud of every single bit of it," Vander Esch said of his journey from small-town America to America's Team. "I know it's taken a lot of work and steps and goals in getting to where I am, but it's only the beginning. This has been my ultimate goal for as far as I can remember, and now that I'm here, I want to live in that and make the most out of it."
NFL players don't come from a graduating class of 11, nine boys and two girls, at a school where they play eight-man football. He won two Class A Division II state championships in football at Salmon River High School and two more in basketball.
While his talents were legendary in the mountains, he was something of a myth down in the Idaho valley.
"I'd been up through that area before but never been through the city and the high school," Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said, remembering his first trip to Riggins to see Vander Esch. "I thought I was at the elementary school when I first pulled up because it was really small. I walked up to the front desk and the lady wasn't there, and that's when this little girl asked me if I was from Boise State. The lady then walks up and I asked, ‘Am I at the high school?' She laughed, ‘This is K-12 -- we're not big enough to have separate schools.'
"The little girl was fourth or fifth grade maybe. But she jumped on the table and vouched for him, ‘He's one of the nicest guys around.' If a fourth-grader vouches for you, you must be a good dude."
There are just 11 classrooms in the school. The gym can fit a maximum of 790 but regularly had more than that to see Vander Esch play. The football field has one set of bleachers on the home sideline, but most fans would stand behind a rope and walk the sidelines as the Savages made their way up and down the field.
Salmon River coach Charlie Shepherd estimated some crowds at 2,000 for the big games, more than quadrupling the population of the town.
"I had people call me from Boise, asking me when we were playing because they read about this Vander Esch kid and they wanted to come watch him play," said Shepherd, who has won five state titles as football coach. "I had a total stranger call me up and congratulate me, ranting and raving, 'There's a lot of Boise State fans saying we've got to get that kid to play for us,' way before he signed up."
Different from an early age
Shepherd has coached one other NCAA Division I player, Jake Manley, who played fullback at Idaho. He had others play at smaller schools, but he knew Vander Esch was different from a young age. Vander Esch filmed the high school games when he was in elementary school. He played up in age groups for better competition. He dominated and won at every level. He also competed against his three older sisters -- Christon, Shannon and Morgon -- who all played college basketball.
Many kids have NFL dreams growing up, whether real or not. Vander Esch was no different.
"I thought I was at the elementary school when I first pulled up because it was really small." Boise St. coach Andy Avalos
on his first visit to Leighton
Vander Esch's high school
"In kindergarten, Head Start, first, second grade, my goal always has been the same," he said. "In my mind I was always going to get there.
"I think that's what helped me because I knew I was going to get there and I couldn't do anything less to make sure I did. I always took initiative. I was always determined, driven to achieve that goal, and I knew that every single choice, every single decision I make in my life is going to dictate how I got to that point."
He could hear the snickers from some kids in school, teachers and those around town.
"I wasn't disrespectful about it at all, but it did light a fire and it did piss me off a lot of times because that's exactly what I wanted to do," Vander Esch said, "and I wasn't going to let anybody tell me I couldn't do anything."
Despite his high school success, he had no scholarship offers. He went to Boise State as a preferred walk-on. He had the chance to do the same at Stanford and Oregon, but the Idaho kid didn't want to leave the state. The scholarship came after his first year on campus.
"I'm the concerned parent," Vander Esch's father, Darwin, said. "What I relayed to [head coach Bryan Harsin] and Andy Avalos is don't hold it against Leighton because this is where his dad made a living. There's a ton of kids in the United States that just need a chance to play. They're going to small schools because that's where their mom and dad make a living."
Vander Esch redshirted his freshman season but showed the coaches the move from the eight-man game to the 11-man game would not be a problem. Avalos said the coaches weren't sure if he would play outside linebacker, inside linebacker or pass-rusher.
"Before he got on the field we knew we had something special or at least hoping we did," Avalos said. "The new staff came in and I told Coach Harsin that we had a guy that would turn into something special. We didn't recruit a linebacker that year. We didn't know the position he'd play, but we just let it play itself out."
Vander Esch worked his way up to a full-time starter for the first time in 2017 and exploded with 141 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, five pass deflections and four forced fumbles. He was named the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year, and after an excellent bowl game against Oregon, he opted to enter his name in the NFL draft.
'The Wolf Hunter'
Darwin and Sandy Vander Esch moved to Idaho in 1992. In 1995, they opened Heaven's Gate Outfitters, running hunting trips and summer trail rides, covering 1,200 square miles, but they eventually sold the company.
In 2001, Darwin started to make hunting trips to Alaska, and he has been the owner of JD's Kniktuk Outfitters in Dillingham, Alaska, 300 miles west of Anchorage on Bristol Bay, serving as a guide for brown bear, wolverine and wolf hunts. He's been away from home for a couple of months at a time since 2008.
Leighton grew up outdoors. He got his first fish on his own when he was 6 or 7 years old. His first deer came when he was 12.
In April 2017, he got his first two wolves on a spring-break trip with his dad in Alaska. They left at 6 a.m., with temperatures hovering around 5 degrees. On the snowmobile, the temperature dipped to minus-20. Nearly 145 miles and 14 hours later, their day was done.
"The wolf is a very leery animal," Darwin said. "You imagine a wolf hears you 3 miles in the distance, he's turned and gone by the time you get to where they were. You've got to pick up the pace to close the distance and catch up. Because it's considered predator control, we are allowed to use snow machines, but you have to shut them off and you can't shoot from a moving snow machine.
"We found some tracks, but the snow was hard. I got off my machine. I walked to try to find the tracks and Leighton moved ahead. All of a sudden I hear him throttle up and there's two wolves been laying not very far. He stopped, saw them take off and got them."
A picture of Vander Esch holding one of the massive wolves made its way to the Cowboys' scouting room before the draft. Soon everybody started to call him "The Wolf Hunter."
"That was just a way for them to remember who I was and to kind of put an image in their head about who I was and an easy way to remember," Leighton said. "I liked it. That's probably one of the best nicknames I've had. It just stuck. I couldn't blame them. My name's kind of long, so it was probably easier to remember it that way."
He is just Leighton in Riggins.
As he walked in for dinner at the Seven Devils Steakhouse and Saloon recently, he knew everybody in the place. Just down the street is the Salmon River Inn, where just about everybody in town filled the back room to watch the NFL draft and see Vander Esch selected No. 19 overall. Vander Esch's agent, Ron Slavin, picked up the bar tab that night. It was a whopping $1,000.
Recently, on one of the last nights off he will have before training camp, Leighton went down to the beach at Shorts Bar on the river with some friends, remembering old times and looking forward to all that will come with the Cowboys.
"I think he'll always be a Riggins kid," Shepherd said.
A vast and unlimited future
At different times, Ty Dolla $ign, Drake and Bryan Adams blare through the speakers as the Polaris RZR zips up the road from the Vander Esch house into Nez Perce National Forest. The turns are twisting and sometimes tight as Vander Esch reaches speeds of 60 mph on the gravelly road.
The back end of the all-terrain vehicle slides back and forth, but Vander Esch adjusts quickly and straightens everything out, just as he would do later on the raft in the Salmon River.
After taking a shortcut through the woods, filled with dips and bumps, two grazing cows look up unimpressed and don't move. A buck scatters as the engine spits and picks up speed. Vander Esch casually tosses out a small tree branch that entered the vehicle during the climb.
At nearly 8,500 feet of elevation, Vander Esch cuts the engine.
To his left is Seven Devils Mountains, where he hiked, hunted, camped and fished with his family. Two weeks ago, snow covered the face of the mountain, but the summer sun has melted most of it away.
To his right are ranges that carry into Oregon and Washington. Behind him are others that go into Montana.
"Pretty neat spot," Leighton says.
As Vander Esch looked out at a view that seemed to go on forever, his future looked much the same.