RIGGINS — Decked out in a Dallas Cowboys jersey and hat, Scott Smith sat at the Salmon River Inn hopeful.
Surrounded by more than 100 people in the restaurant in a town of 400, Smith and everyone else was waiting to hear local boy Leighton Vander Esch get his name called at the NFL Draft.
When the Salmon River High graduate went 19th overall to the Cowboys, you probably could have heard the noise a mile down the canyon. Few were happier than Smith, who came up from Boise. He also is battling Stage IV colon cancer and did not want to pass up the once-in-a-lifetime shot to be among the locals when Vander Esch was drafted.
“This was an experience that I’d never be able to have anywhere else,” said Smith, a longtime Boise State season-ticket holder. “It was amazing to be up here for this.”
Thursday’s draft party was the perfect encapsulation of what a person like Vander Esch can mean to a community. Kids wore shirts with “Vander Esch 38” on the back, most others sported Salmon River and Boise State gear.
Eleven years ago, Riggins decided to break away from a consolidated school district that included nearby Grangeville. It was a risky move that required some financial assistance from those in town, but if you need evidence of how it worked, look no further than Vander Esch.
“We went from almost having no sports in Riggins to seeing Leighton Vander Esch be drafted, I’m sorry, but it makes me want to cry a little bit. This is a big deal,” said Mark Hollon, who lives on the same road as the Vander Esch family and owns an auto body shop in town.
As he scanned the room, Hollon laughed and said “this is Riggins.” It could have had multiple meanings — that nearly half the town was in one room, or that the support was so obvious.
[Related: Why Cowboys took Vander Esch; meet the sisters behind the football star]
Hollon’s son-in-law, Ty Medley, whose brother is married to Vander Esch’s sister Christon, played at Salmon River and is now an assistant football coach. Medley played for the University of Idaho, one of a few local players to get walk-on opportunities at Division I schools. But Vander Esch is now the one all will aspire to be, going from 8-man football to Boise State walk-on to first-round draft pick.
“It’s been years and years of kids trying to break through to not even the NFL. Just him making it at Boise State, I can tell the kids I coach, it’s not impossible,” Medley said. “Everybody here is on a different level today. The pride is only going to swell. We’re definitely on the map now.”
The state of Idaho knew a bit about the athletic successes of this town, when Vander Esch helped the Savages to back-to-back 1A Division II state titles in football and basketball as a junior and senior. Now, Vander Esch’s story is known to a heck of a lot more fans, including the NFL team with the biggest following — the Cowboys.
Dallas was the team most in Riggins were hoping would take Vander Esch, and he’s in good company with former Broncos Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence on the defensive line, plus Kellen Moore coaching quarterbacks. Jimmy Shepherd, who played on those state championship teams with Vander Esch, turned around and gave a huge hug to Medley. Shepherd’s father and brother were at the draft in Arlington, Texas.
“It’s a dream come true for all of us,” Shepherd said. “Even people who didn’t play with him had tears in their eyes. For Leighton to go to Dallas, it’s perfect. They have all those Boise State guys, he’ll probably play a lot, and it’s America’s team.”
Smith said he makes it to at least one Cowboys game every year, and this season he hopes to make two of them.
“It’s amazing, exactly what I wanted,” he said.
Across the street from the party was the bus Vander Esch’s father, Darwin, had decked out with his son’s name and Boise State logos that traveled to home games and some on the road. Hollon helped paint it, and it was used to take fans from town to Bronco games, including some watching Thursday night at the Salmon River Inn.
But that bus probably won’t get much use anymore, not terribly necessary since Vander Esch is poised to earn $11.9 million over four years, including a $6.7 million signing bonus. A kid from a small town in Idaho, now a rich man. What could be a better tale?
About 100 yards away from the bus as the locals headed home still elated, Tracie Pottenger was putting her three kids into the family’s truck.
“We’ve got to get home and stock up on Cowboys stuff,” she said.
No doubt, Dallas found a few hundred more fans up here Thursday.