Leighton Vander Esch retires from NFL after multiple neck injuries with Dallas Cowboys

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Leighton Vander Esch retired Monday following six NFL seasons, with the linebacker stepping away after missing 12 games for the Dallas Cowboys last year because of the latest in a series of neck injuries.

The announcement by the 28-year-old former first-round draft pick came three days after the Cowboys released Vander Esch with a failed physical designation. His injury last season was the fourth since 2019 involving the neck and was considered career-threatening.

“I realize that I am no longer able to adhere to the unwavering standard of excellence that professional football demands. I say this with a heavy heart: I am medically retiring from the NFL,” Vander Esch said in a statement. “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.”

After being the 19th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Vander Esch started 65 of the 71 games he played for Dallas. He finished with 557 career tackles. He set a club rookie record with 176 tackles and was a Pro Bowl pick in his first season.

“We’re proud that he wore the star on his helmet,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.

After the first neck injury in 2019, Vander Esch was diagnosed with a narrow spinal column and underwent fusion surgery. The latest injury happened when he was pushed from behind in Week 5 against San Francisco last season and jammed his neck into teammate Micah Parsons’ right leg.

Vander Esch had issues with his neck at Boise State before the Cowboys drafted him.

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 a two-year contract.

“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,” Jones said. “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.”


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