Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch medically retired from the NFL.

Three days after being released by the Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch says he is 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 can no longer live up to the unwavering standard of excellence that professional football demands. I say this with great regret: I am medically retiring from the NFL.” Vander Esch said in a statement shared by the team.

I love football so much and my body just won’t cooperate anymore. I cherished every moment of my NFL career and it has been such a blessing to play the game for so long. This year, things may look a little different for me, but my only goal is to be a great husband and father to my loving family.

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

Vander Esch had problems with his neck at Boise State before the Cowboys selected 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 his two-year contract.

Longtime Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said in a statement that Vander Esch’s passion and love for the game “was infectious” and that he made a difference from the moment he joined the team.

“Rarely do you come across a player like Leighton, who grew up playing eight-man football only to play the 11-man game for the first time at the major collegiate level and excel,” Jones said.

Jones also said Vander Esch “was a leader and the type of teammate who impacted those around him in the best way.”

“On behalf of the entire Dallas Cowboys organization, we are proud that he wore the star on his helmet, we thank him and wish Leighton, his wife Madalynn, and their young daughter all the best,” Jones said.

Coach Mike McCarthy said Vander Esch set an example to his teammates on how to play and will be greatly missed in the locker room and on the field.

“Leighton is exactly the type of player and person that a coach feels very fortunate to have on his team. His leadership, character, perseverance, dedication, and will to win were at the highest level, not to mention his playing ability,” said Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy. “Leighton impacted our team beyond defense. He set a tone that set an example for all of our players on how we want to play. Having a teammate like Leighton is something that everyone on our staff and in our locker room values greatly, and we’re going to miss him. I wish Leighton, his wife Madalynn, and his daughter all the best and know he will continue to live life to the fullest.”

Through the Dallas Cowboys, Leighton Vander Esch issued the following unedited statement.

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 true on April 26, 2018. That night will forever be a night I will never forget. During my six years as a Cowboys player, I always pursued success and winning football games, while preparing and training with the highest standards of competence, passion, and perseverance. It has been an honor to represent my family, my teammates, and the people of Dallas.

I realize that I can no longer live up to the unwavering standard of excellence that professional football demands. I say this with great regret: I am medically retired from the NFL. I love football so much and my body is no longer cooperative. I cherished every moment of my NFL career and it has been such a blessing to play the game for so long. This year, things may look a little different for me, but my only goal is to be a great husband and father to my beloved family.

Reflecting on my six years in the NFL and all that it took to get to my current situation reminded me of the many people to whom I owe humble and sincere gratitude.

No one has felt the daily grind more than my beloved and extremely supportive wife, Madalynn. Six years ago, we were just two young people facing a whole new world here in Dallas. We had so much to learn in such a short time and we took it one day at a time, soaking up every moment together. She has been with me throughout my career and was completely dedicated to helping me become my best self, on and off the field. I know with certainty that I could not have been on this journey in the NFL without her. Madalynn, you have made this transition to being a mother to our little girl seem so easy. To you, I will be eternally grateful and blessed. If there’s one thing that’s for sure, players’ wives don’t get enough credit.

My mum and dad provided me with the perfect combination of love and discipline and taught me what hard work and perseverance are. From an early age, you two always told me, if I do something, do it to the best of my ability. Every time I put on a uniform, I have always strived to adhere to the principles you stand for and I can only hope that I have not let you down.

My three sisters have helped me a lot in their way. They have all been extremely influential in all facets of my life and having them as my siblings helped shape me into the person I am today. Growing up and attending all your games, the three of you laid the foundation for how to compete. You are all fierce in your way, and that has added a lot to the passion and excitement with which I have played. To this day, some of my favorite memories are watching you play basketball, volleyball, and run track.

I would like to thank Boise State University for hiring a kid from Riggins, Idaho, as a walk-on and allowing me to become the player who became a first-round pick. Coach Harsin, I am grateful for the opportunity you gave me to play at my dream college. Growing up and attending 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 I appreciate all the work you put into me. You truly believed in me and never let me settle for anything less than greatness. To this day you are a father figure in my life. There are countless memories on and off the field that I look back on.

My agent, Ron, thank you for always supporting me. You have worked countless hours to make sure we were in the best position possible. You have always put my family’s preferences first. The ins and outs of the dr process

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

To my exceptional colleagues, past and present, I owe everything. I hope to be able to address you formally and privately later but know that I love and respect you all, and not having the opportunity to be close to you is what will hurt the most. Forming friendships and unbreakable bonds of trust on the field is what makes football so special and important to me. When I look back on my NFL career, I think of all the games won and lost, the plays made or missed. I know I will think of you and the time we shared the trust and love we had for each other and the unwavering will we had to help each other succeed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The Dallas community and the devoted Cowboys fans 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 shown by the fans have been inspiring. On a Sunday afternoon in the fall, there is no doubt that the collective roar of our enthusiastic fans gives the players strength. Countless times I was approached by fans and loyal supporters who gave me nothing but words of encouragement and support. I cannot thank you enough.

I thank God every day for everything he has given me: my family, my friends, my teammates, and for being on this stage to impact people’s lives positively. Today I would like to thank God for the countless blessings He continues to shower on my family and me. You have given me a healthy new baby girl and a wife who follows you. Without relying on your unfailing love and guidance, I know I would not 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 allow you to work through me in this next chapter to continue to impact people’s lives and be a light in this world.

The team released a “Thank You, Leighton Vander Esch” Video featuring many of the highlights of his career, which can be viewed on the team’s website here.

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