SportsDay’s Kate Hairopoulos made the 400-mile bus journey from Riggins, Idaho, to Seattle with Cowboys rookie Leighton Vander Esch’s family. Here’s the behind-the-scenes story.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Sept. 26, 2018.
SOMEWHERE IN IDAHO/WASHINGTON STATE — It’s still dark Saturday morning when the bus rumbles down the side of the mountain, onto Seven Devils Road and turns left on Main Street in tiny Riggins, Idaho.
The Vander Esch Express pulls in ahead of schedule to a lot behind the Chevron gas station. As the bus door huffs open, family and friends emerge from their parked trucks and cars and climb onboard. They chug coffee now and lug beer coolers for later.
This is the first pilgrimage to see Leighton Vander Esch play in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted the local legend in the first round of April’s draft. SportsDay went along for the 400-mile ride to Seattle for Sunday’s Cowboys-Seahawks game.
Leighton would finish with 11 tackles in the loss, tied for the team lead, and he’s taking on a bigger role this week against Detroit and onward as veteran linebacker Sean Lee misses time to an injured hamstring.
Darwin Vander Esch, Leighton’s father and the mastermind of the 40-foot billboard on wheels, is the driver. Leighton’s name and achievements are emblazoned in vinyl displays on the exterior of the bus, an eBay find Darwin purchased three years ago. He wanted to transport supporters the three hours down to Boise State to watch Leighton, a former walk-on, play on the school’s famed blue turf in person. He also hoped to raise the profile of his son and, by virtue, others who hail from small towns like this one.
Leighton played eight-man football in Riggins, population 410, set deep in a canyon where the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers converge. Fishing, whitewater rafting, jet boat races and the rodeo highlight the community calendar.
Now the bus is a vessel to support Leighton as he continues his career. Cowboys seat covers are on order.
The number of passengers ultimately will top 20 and include all three of Leighton’s older sisters — Shannon, Christon and Morgon — and of course Sandy, Leighton’s mother, wrapped in her Cowboys jacket with No. 55 on the back.
The driver grabs the hand-held P.A. microphone that rests near the steering wheel.
“Bathroom, you may use,” he announces. “Sink back there has water — it is on a limited basis, so you can’t leave it running, running, running. …You guys need anything, don’t be scared to ask. Have fun. No seat belts, so hang onto each other.”
“I’ve warned them about you!” a voice calls out from the back.
“I’m not responsible for spilling your food and your drinks on you,” Darwin deadpans into the speaker.
The bus eases back onto Main Street, and Darwin notes “driving at 7 a.m.”
The route follows the water, once known as “The River of No Return,” where Leighton spent summers working as a guide on the rapids. It doesn’t take long to get out of Riggins, formerly named “Gouge Eye” because of an infamous incident during the gold rush days. Soon, the path stretches across the “Time Zone Bridge,” marking the change from Mountain to Pacific Daylight Time.
The ride is a 1992 MCI Coach that Darwin bought for $14,000 after keeping an eye on the market for some time. This one made for a good deal, he said, with about 500,000 miles logged and a comfortable former life in Southern California, transporting passengers to and from an Amtrak station and Disneyland. Some of the seats have been removed from the 53-passenger bus to create space for cots and the propane stove Darwin and Sandy have had since they were married 35 years ago. Darwin refinished the bathroom to make room for a vanity and shower.
A name tag with “Darwin” hand-scrawled is stuck on the front panel, near the Watch Your Step sticker. A pink fly-swatter hangs to the left of the driver’s seat.
Leighton, who rode the bus home from his final two bowl games at Boise State, the Cactus Bowl and Las Vegas Bowl, wasn’t sure what to think of his dad’s purchase at first.
“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out,” said Leighton, who would get in a quick visit with the bus passengers after Sunday’s game before they headed back to Riggins, “but it’s pretty neat. It’s pretty special having support like that, having a big locomotive for everybody to jump on and go to games together.”
His mom and sisters reacted with little surprise.
“Darwin has come up with a lot of ideas I think at first are over-the-top, way too much,” Sandy said. “But I’ve gotten used to it.”
Darwin notes that the bus is nothing fancy, not like the executive ones Cowboys owner Jerry Jones owns. The day after the NFL draft at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, the family rode in Jones’ bus to the airport, where they caught a ride on Jones’ helicopter up to The Star in Frisco.
As a plastic container of peanut butter cookies makes its way around the Vander Esch bus and a new pot of coffee brews on the stove, Morgon makes it clear the family is just fine with a random assortment of friends and family loaded up, off to support Leighton.
“How do you fit in?” she asks, smiling warmly at a passenger she didn’t know.
To witness the start of his son’s NFL career, Darwin is commuting back and forth from Alaska. He leads wolf and bear hunting trips into the wild from an outpost in Dillingham. For years, the family had owned a similar outfitter in Riggins, guiding hunting trips and trail rides. Leighton became known as “Wolf Hunter” to the Cowboys scouting department and coaches leading up to the draft after he showed them pictures of wolves he harvested in Alaska with his father.
To get back for the bus ride, Darwin takes a flight to Anchorage, then to Seattle and lastly Boise. Sandy meets him at the airport Friday night, and they head up State Highway 55, which becomes a two-lane, curving adventure while passing slower vehicles during the three-hour climb to Riggins. They keep an eye out for elk on the road.
As Darwin steers the Chevy Equinox with his right hand, a silver ring shaped into the head of a bear gleams.
The family has made that journey too many times to count. The idea for a bus first came about from the many athletic voyages that spanned multiple hours round-trip because of distances between schools.
The couple arrives home, a double-wide the family rebuilt on the side of a mountain, filled with hunting trophies and mementos of Leighton’s career, near midnight.
They still have to prepare the bus, stored on a flat piece of real estate next to the house.
Darwin and Sandy will probably take the bus to Dallas for the first time — nearly a 30-hour drive — later this season and stay awhile. For now, Seattle is the big trip.
The soundtrack onboard is limited to country radio or the Sirius NFL station, ranging from George Strait’s “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” to excited chatter about Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield’s recent breakout game.
The bus has climbed up graded U.S. 95 to a summit near White Bird and Grangeville, the divide between the Salmon River and the Camas Prairie. It’s the perfect spot to stop for a group photo.
The perch offers a stunning backdrop for the group of Vander Esch supporters and the bus.
The image — as soon as spotty WiFi and cell service allow — is posted on Facebook and Twitter. The NFL Network and other media retweet the update from the road.
Christon reads out some of the responses, smoothly skipping over the less encouraging ones from Seahawks supporters.
“You guys rolling down I-90? Man it would be sweet to see the bus! Go Cowboys!”
“Hell yeah! Can’t wait to watch LVE crack some skulls!”
The beer cans start popping open as the miles roll by.
The Vander Esch sisters chat from back-to-back rows about what to expect Sunday. Leighton is six years younger than his youngest sister, but the siblings are close. Their parents have traveled to the Cowboys’ first two games, but this is the first NFL game of any kind for them. Their significant others are along for the fun, too.
The sisters still see their little brother even as a pro player and first-round pick.
Leighton hasn’t been able to hunt or be home as much as he used to because of his football career. He and his fiancée, Maddy Tucker, whose family also lives in Riggins, will always come home in the offseason, they expect. In Texas, Leighton is staying in the home of Orlando Scandrick, the former Cowboys cornerback and fellow Boise State alum.
The sisters break down the upcoming game — Seattle’s offensive line is struggling. “I almost feel bad for Russell Wilson,” one says.
Christon notes that she didn’t see the holding penalty Leighton was called for during a punt return in the Week 2 win over the Giants. She and her family picked up the NFL TV package so they can get all of his games.
A buzzing sound is driving Darwin mad. The wind is blowing in through a spot where some of the rubber is missing around the door. Long-time family friend Albert Herzig tries to fix it. He wedges a beer koozie into the opening. Then he tries to hammer in a pair of pliers for good measure.
The noise stops for a bit.
Later, it starts again.
After the group makes a quick stop at Carl’s Jr. for burgers, onion rings and shakes a couple of hours out from Seattle, the koozie is jimmied back into place before the bus gets back on the road.
A lively card game of “31” gets going in the back.
Into the big city
About seven hours after departing from Riggins, the bus rolls through bouts of rain and past signs for Snoqualmie Falls as it nears Seattle. Darwin grumbles about the traffic and all the Toyota Priuses on the road.
Passengers in a couple of vehicles pull up next to the bus, peer inside and wave. Darwin honk honks as the bus takes the tunnel that leads to the city, appeasing a 9-year-old passenger’s request.
Amid the spectacular backdrop of Seattle and Puget Sound, CenturyLink Field comes into view. Everyone on the bus turns to take in where Leighton will play the next day.
Like him, from Riggins to the big-time, they’ve arrived, as only the Vander Esch Express can.
MORE PHOTOS FROM THE VANDER ESCH EXPRESS
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