Meet the Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch’s rise gives Cowboys reason to howl

FRISCO, Texas — Leighton Vander Esch wondered when it was going to be over.

Once again, the toddler was riding horseback with father Darwin alongside the Riggins, Idaho, mountains in the pitch-black night. The Vander Esches were en route to another hunting trip, another day of arriving at camp at 4 a.m., shooting bear or deer or elk or wolves, and then returning late.

“There are some intense memories,” Leighton told USA TODAY Sports of his hunting childhood. But “I feel like that was a lot of the start of everything.”

The adrenaline of hunting, the fear of falling off the mountain horseback, the insistence of hiking 2 miles at 2 years, 4 months old rather than having Darwin carry him? Those experiences, and the keen senses imperative to ambushing prey 900 yards out, helped mold the electric rookie linebacker Cowboys teammates and coaches now call "the Wolf Hunter."

So when Vander Esch emerged from the AT&T Stadium tunnel last Thursday nearly 2,000 miles from the hunts so vivid in his mind, he was ready to trade the tense silence of those pursuits for the ecstatic cheers of 93,004 fans on hand for Dallas' victory over the Saints. Wolf howls screeched through loud speakers.

The Wolf Hunter did the only thing he could think of.

He howled, too.

“It gave me chills, man,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”

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