Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch medically retires from NFL

Vander Esch was the team's top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and started in 65 of the 71 games he played in over a six-year career

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – DECEMBER 4: Leighton Vander Esch #55 of the Dallas Cowboys walks off the field after a game against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium on December 4, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys defeated the Colts 54-19.

Three days after being released by the Dallas Cowboys, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch says he's retiring from the NFL.

Vander Esch was released with a failed physical designation Friday after missing 12 games with a neck injury in 2023. The injury was the fourth since 2019 involving the 28-year-old's neck and was considered career-threatening.

"I realize that I am no longer able to adhere to the unwavering standard of excellence that professional football demands. I say this with a heavy heart: I am medically retiring from the NFL," Vander Esch said in a statement shared by the team.

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. This year, things may look a little different for me, but the sole focus is being a great husband and father for my loving family.

Leighton Vander Esch

After the first neck injury in 2019, Vander Esch was diagnosed with a narrow spinal column and underwent fusion surgery. The latest injury happened when he was pushed from behind in Week 5 against San Francisco last year and jammed his neck into teammate Micah Parsons' right leg.

Vander Esch had issues with his neck at Boise State before the Cowboys drafted him in the first round, and he set a club rookie record with 176 tackles while making his only Pro Bowl.

In part because of the neck issues, Dallas declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract but brought him back in 2022 on a one-year deal.

Vander Esch had one year remaining on a two-year contract.

Dallas Cowboys owner and longtime general manager Jerry Jones said in a statement Vander Esch's passion and love for the game "was contagious" and that he was a difference-maker from the moment he joined the team.

"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,” Jones said.

Jones also said Vander Esch "was a leader and the kind of teammate that impacted those around him in the best ways."

"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," Jones said.

Head coach Mike McCarthy said Vander Esch set an example for his teammates about how to play and that he'll be greatly missed in the locker room and on the field.

“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,” said Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Mike McCarthy. “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.”


Through the Dallas Cowboys, Leighton Vander Esch released the unedited statement below.

Today is a difficult day for me, but it is also a day of reflection and gratitude. Playing for the Jones Family, Coach Garrett, McCarthy, Marinelli, Richard, DQ, Bloom, George, AD, and Scotty have been the best days of my life. My dream of playing for the Dallas Cowboys came to reality on April 26, 2018. That night will forever be a night I’ll never forget. During my six years as a Cowboys player, I’ve always pursued success and winning football games, while preparing and training with the highest standards of competition, passion and perseverance. It has been an honor to represent my family, my teammates and the people of Dallas.

I realize that I am no longer able to adhere to the unwavering standard of excellence that professional football demands. I say this with a heavy heart: I am medically retiring from the NFL. 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. This year, things may look a little different for me, but the sole focus is being a great husband and father for my loving family.

Reflecting on my six years in the NFL, and all that was required to reach my current situation, reminded me of the many people I owe humble, sincere gratitude to.

No one has felt the daily grind more than my loving and extremely supportive wife, Madalynn. Six years ago, we were just two young individuals taking on a whole new world here in Dallas. We had so much to learn in such little time, and we took it day by day, soaking up every moment together. She has been with me throughout my entire career and was completely dedicated to helping me become my absolute best, on and off the field. I know for a fact I couldn’t have been on this journey in the NFL without her. Madalynn, you have made this transition into being the mother of our little girl look so easy. For you, I am forever grateful and blessed. If there’s one thing that is for sure, player wives don’t get near enough credit.

My mom and dad provided me with the perfect combination of love and discipline and taught me what hard work and persistence truly are. From an early age you two always told me, if I do something do it to my fullest ability. Every time I put on a uniform, I have always strived to stick to the principles they stand for, and I can only hope that I haven’t let them down.

My three sisters have greatly helped me in their own ways. All of them have been extremely influential in all facets of my life and having them as siblings helped transform me into the person I am today. Growing up and going to all of your games, you three set the basis for how to compete. You’re all fierce in your own ways, and that has brought a lot into the passion and emotion I have played with. Still to this day some of my favorite memories are watching you guys play basketball, volleyball and run track.

I would like to thank Boise State University for taking on a kid from Riggins, Idaho as a walk-on and letting me grow into the player that became a 1st round pick. Coach Harsin, I am thankful for the opportunity you gave me to play at my dream college. Growing up and going to the Boise State games as a kid, it was always my dream to wear that blue and orange uniform. Coach Avalos, I owe you for life and appreciate all the work you put into me. You truly believed in me and never let me settle for anything less than greatness. Still to this day you are a father figure in my life. There are countless memories on and off the field that I reminisce on.

My agent, Ron, thank you for always having my back. You have worked countless hours making sure we have been in the best position possible. You have always taken into consideration my family’s preferences first. The ins and outs of the draft process, you handled like an absolute pro. You have also taken care of us in Dallas like we are family. Anything we need, you are always there to help no matter how busy or tied up you may be in the moment. Thank you for helping make my dream of playing in the NFL and for Dallas come true.

Football is truly the ultimate team sport, and being a part of an NFL organization makes that even more evident. So many people devote their time to helping the players, and I would like to thank everyone in the Dallas Cowboys organization, former and current, for all that you have done for me over the last six years. The athletic trainers, Jim, Britt, Greg, Hanson, you guys constantly worked your tails off to ensure I was ready to play every week. The men in the equipment room, Mike, Bucky, Dylan, Blake, thank you so much for making sure I had the right gear every day to perform the way we do. Our player security, Cable and Bryan, you two go above and beyond to make sure all of us are taken care of. Thank you! Our strength staff, Coach H, Kendall, Ced. You three have really went above and beyond for me the last few years, I love you guys like brothers. Coach Marcus, we miss you every day, and not a day goes by that I stepped in the weight room and didn’t think about you.

To my exceptional teammates, former and current, I owe you everything. I look forward to addressing you formally and privately later, but please know that I love and respect all of you, and not having the opportunity to be around you is what will hurt most of all. Forming friendships and unbreakable bonds of trust on the field is what makes football so special and so important to me. When reminiscing on my NFL career, I will think about all the games won and lost, plays made or missed. I know I will think about you and the time we shared together, the trust and love we had for each other and the unwavering willingness we had to help each other succeed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The Dallas community and the devoted fans of the Cowboys are simply amazing. Six years ago, upon arriving in Dallas, I received the warmest welcome possible, and Dallas has been my home ever since. The dedication and passion the fans display has been inspiring. During a Sunday afternoon in the fall, there is no doubt the collective roar of our enthusiastic fans provides strength for the players. Countless times I was approached by fans and loyal season ticket holders who gave me nothing but words of encouragement and support. I cannot thank you enough.

I thank God every day for all that He has given me: my family, my friends, my teammates, and being on this stage to impact people’s lives in a positive way. Today, I would like to thank God for the countless blessings he continues to shower over my family and me. You have given me a new healthy baby girl and a wife that follows you. Without trusting in your unwavering love and guidance, I know I wouldn’t have made it this far. You have blessed me with the ability to become a Dallas Cowboy and for allowing me the privilege of a 6-year professional football career. I strive to let you work through me in this next chapter to continue to impact people’s lives and to be a light in this world.


The team released a "Thank you, Leighton Vander Esch" video with many of his career highlights, which can be seen on the team's page here.

NBC 5 and The Associated Press
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