LB Leighton Vander Esch medically retires at age 28; Jerry Jones 'proud' he played for Cowboys

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 04: Leighton Vander Esch #55 of the Dallas Cowboys walks off the field after a game against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch announced Monday that he is retiring from the NFL at age 28 after a six-year career, but he's not calling it quits because he wants to.

"I love the game of football so much, and my body won't cooperate any longer," Vander Esch said via the Dallas Cowboys website.

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Vander Esch, who has dealt with neck issues since his college playing days, sustained a neck injury in November 2023. That injury is now forcing him to end his time as an NFL player.

"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." Vander Esch said.

In a statement, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expressed his appreciation for LVE both as a player and a human being.

"Seldom do you come across a player like Leighton, who grew up playing eight-man football only to first play the 11-man game at the major collegiate level and excel," said Jones. "His passion and love for the game was contagious, and from the moment he arrived, he has been a difference maker. His grit, toughness, motivation, determination and football IQ will be sorely missed. Leighton also embodied the strong character and personal qualities that make him much more than an accomplished player.

"He was a leader and the kind of teammate that impacted those around him in the best ways. Leighton's playing career may have come to an end, but his future is very bright. On behalf of the entire Dallas Cowboys organization, we're proud that he wore the star on his helmet, we thank him and we wish all the best to Leighton, his wife, Madalynn, and their young daughter."

Drafted by the Cowboys with the 19th overall pick in 2018, Vander Esch was a one-team player, spending all six years in Dallas. He was a second-team All-Pro in his rookie year and voted to the Pro Bowl after a breakout season that saw him make 140 combined tackles as well as two interceptions, but spent the next two seasons dealing with neck injuries and a broken collarbone, both of which required surgery. He was limited to nine games in 2019 and 10 in 2020, but bounced back in 2021 with 77 combined tackles and one interception over 17 games.

Vander Esch only missed three games in 2022, his best season since his rookie campaign, then signed a two-year contract with the Cowboys. But then the vast majority of his 2023 was stolen by that neck injury. At the start of March, Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News reported that Vander Esch was dealing with yet another neck problem, and discussions between Jones and Vander Esch's agent had taken on a different tone.

On March 15, three days before he announced his retirement, the Cowboys released Vander Esch with a failed physical designation.

LVE retires with 496 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. Oh, and just one more important stat: one touchdown, which he scored in his last full NFL game on Oct. 1, 2023 against the New England Patriots.