Former Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch retires from NFL after six seasons

Injuries, however, interrupted their ascension. Vander Esch’s neck first gave him trouble during his sophomore season at Boise State, prompting him to spend the rest of his career wearing a cowboy collar. That protective measure wouldn’t prevent him from experiencing a nerve issue in his neck in his second NFL season, forcing him to undergo corrective surgery and ending his campaign prematurely. A year later, a broken collarbone limited him to 10 games. And in the 2021 season, with Vander Esch finally enjoying a healthy season, the Cowboys decided to move on from Smith in favor of star rookie Micah Parsons, ending their partnership before they were ever able to play substantial snaps together.

Vander Esch’s health troubles led the Cowboys to decline his fifth-year option, and after signing a one-year deal to return in 2022, another injury — this time, a neck stinger — cost him four games. A year later, yet another neck issue would cost him all but five contests in the 2023 season.

With the 2024 league year underway, Vander Esch has decided now is the time to stop fighting the injury bug and move onto the next chapter of his life.

“I realize that I am no longer able to adhere to the unwavering standard of excellence that professional football demands,” Vander Esch wrote in a letter included in the Cowboys’ press release announcing his retirement. “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.

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