On his broad shoulders, he carried his home town's highest hopes to Texas, and when he became the 19th pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Leighton Vander Esch's home town was there to lift him up.

"Why is the building so full?," Debbie Swift repeated back the question Thursday night, April 26, at Summerville's. "We love our hometown kid and we're here to support him."

About 200 turned out for the most official NFL draft party the town has ever hosted, which was covered by Boise State football press, broadcast by multiple TV stations, including on the NFL's draft coverage partner stations and attended by people from as far away as Lewiston.

Salmon River's No. 1 football fan -- Tom Tumelson -- arrived early with his wife, Bert, and grandkids Dotson and Kinsley. The Tumelsons made note of Vander Esch's willingness to take time after ballgames to engage with their grandkids. "He's been doing that for years," Bert said. "That's what kind of guy he is."

"We had one-point wins and goalline stands, but what I remember is how most of the time, the opponents we saw, they had bigger kids and more of them," Tom said. "But ours were Salmon River tough."

Another of the early-arrivers, Janeen Eggebrecht, recalled a time when Vander Esch and some of his college compatriots moved a stuck jet boat during the town's annual jet boat races.

"A boat crashed at Time Zone and next thing I know, the Boise State guys are down there in the rushing water pushing this boat back into the river, and all I thought was, 'If those guys all fall in the river, that coach is going to be mad,' because all of a sudden I realized they were precious cargo," she said.

Tumelson's 2013 award of a booster club plaque for having attended every football game embodied a bit of toughness that year, too. The high school sports fans of Riggins have established a reputation for traveling in force to road games and tournaments -- and Tumelson said that one such trip involved heading out at 4 a.m. for a game north of Kendrick driving roads no car had been through that day.

During his relatively short time on the starting defense at Boise State University, Vander Esch and supporters traveled a bit easier, thanks to the family bus.

Kerry Brennan, a 32-year fishing guide and outfitter in the Riggins area, said his favorite Vander Esch memory took place on that bus on the way back from having witnessed Vander Esch's best-known on-field performance, and recapping one of Vander Esch's big hits during the Las Vegas Bowl with the man of the hour, who was in Arlington, at Cowboys Stadium, on draft night.

About this time, the bar had filled up and the draft was about to begin. Hardly a word could be heard above the ruckus -- until Tom Tumelson bellowed asking all present to stand for the national anthem, after which, he remarked, he pointed out, "Nobody took a knee here!"

Marc Damon of Riggins said his favorite Vander Esch memories were of "that Oregon hit" -- referring to a forced fumble frequently replayed, and frequently cited among the plays that defined Vander Esch's college career -- and of a late-game dunk Vander Esch unleashed during a high school basketball tournament his senior year. Damon -- a longtime BSU fan -- also asked the Free Press to quote him on this: "The Southeastern Conference isn't the only conference football players come from."

As for why so many had come out to Summerville's for the draft party, Damon said: "We're smaller than Prosser, Washington, Kellen Moore's home town, but we get to feel the same thing they did."

"That's why I think everybody's here," Jim Ormsby said. "Not only has he done what he's done and deserved every bit. People here really love him. Leighton is a gentleman, a genuinely good person, and I hope to god fame and fortune doesn't change him."

Shane Harper and Rhonda Damon both pointed back to Vander Esch's performance in the classroom as part of their favorite memories of him.

"My son, Canyon, the most important thing to him was Leighton Vander Esch was valedictorian of his class," Harper said.

"I loved watching him play basketball," Rhonda Damon said. "Especially when he'd dunk it. And he was excellent in class. We're so proud of him."

Even on the superstar's supremely special night, the people of Riggins also found ways to praise other people who have been part of his teams and who have contributed to his success.

High school teammates showed up, too.

"My Leighton memory would be duck hunting, and all the friendship things growing up," Salmon River High School '14 alum McCoy Hale said.

Many came for the party.

And for Barbara Baker and Monica Baker of Lewiston, an old friendship with one of Vander Esch's sisters was a good enough reason for the trip.

"I'm just thrilled for their whole family," Monica Baker said. "And for the whole town."

And when the time came for Dallas to pick, and when the Cowboys picked their boy, the townspeople who were present Thursday night roared their approval and support just as mightily as every time before.

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