The closest major airport to Nacogdoches, Texas, is more than an hour’s drive, but Brant Boyer felt like it was worth the trip. It’s a small town, with a population of just over 30,000. There is no interstate running through the town, which is mostly occupied by churches and Stephen F. Austin University.
One day in the spring, a storm was coming. Boyer, the New York Jets special teams coordinator, had set up a private pre-NFL Draft workout with Xavier Gipson for 8 a.m., but it was pushed back because of the weather. The SFA football team was practicing that morning, and they needed the field at 8 to avoid the conditions. So, Boyer told Gipson to show up an hour earlier and to make sure the lights were on by the time he arrived.
When Boyer showed up at 6:15 — 45 minutes early — Gipson was already there, lights turned on, ready to practice.
“That’s something you don’t see very often,” Boyer said.
Neither is what Gipson did in his NFL debut for the Jets on Monday night, even if it’s something Boyer envisioned when he first watched his film. Gipson, an undrafted rookie, scored the game-winning touchdown, a walk-off, zig-zagging, 65-yard punt return in overtime to clinch a 22-16 win against the Buffalo Bills. When he scored, most of the Jets roster mobbed him in the end zone. Head coach Robert Saleh was the first one there. In the locker room, his teammates celebrated by lifting him up, a jovial celebration with one of the Jets’ most popular players — already.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) September 12, 2023
Back in Nacogdoches, the entire SFA football team, split into two large conference rooms, watched Gipson’s first NFL game together. They stayed up and watched until the end. When he scored the touchdown, they celebrated.
“I’ll tell you what: We’re all hoarse this morning,” SFA head coach Colby Carthel said Tuesday. “I thought about canceling practice and having a ticker-tape parade here in Nacogdoches.”
The Jets might’ve unearthed another undrafted gem, joining Tony Adams and Bryce Huff as general manager Joe Douglas’ discoveries from recent years. Gipson already looks like a potential star as a returner, with the opportunity for an even bigger role at wide receiver too as the season progresses.
“He’s a special individual,” Saleh said Friday.
Gipson was a standout on the Jets’ appearance on this season of “Hard Knocks,” and fought his way onto the 53-man roster after getting ignored in the draft. He had offers from 28 other teams, Carthel said, but he wanted to play for the Jets.
They have Boyer to thank for that.
“Just watching him on tape, you could see the gifts as you see it right now,” said Boyer, who added that when he called Gipson and asked to work him out, “You could see the smile on his face through the damn phone.”
He asked around campus about Gipson and studied how he interacted with people — teammates, coaches, equipment staff, friends and strangers — and came back to the Jets with a message:
We need to get this kid.
Before training camp, Gipson flew home to Dallas and spoke to students at Woodrow Wilson High School, his old stomping grounds. This weekend, Gipson will fly home. He’ll play for the first time at AT&T Stadium, against the Cowboys. There will be some Jets jerseys in the crowd, No. 82, “GIPSON” on the back.
Where Gipson is from, “Cowboys fans are now Jets fans,” said Chandra Hooper-Barnett. She’s the principal at Woodrow Wilson, where students are “very excited for him because they see dreams do come true — making the NFL was one of his dreams. They see it’s possible for this to happen.
“He was one of them not too long ago.”
Hooper-Barnett remembers Gipson as a middle schooler, when he was running through the hallways, playing with other kids, always laughing, always smiling. Ask anyone about Gipson and that’s always the first thing that comes up: His smile.
“The jovial person that he is, he was just a great kid,” she said. “He was always smiling, like the smile you see now.”
After Gipson’s big night at MetLife Stadium on Monday, Hooper-Barnett dug up the yearbook from his senior year at Woodrow Wilson. She unearthed his senior quote: “People always told me that I was too small to play football, and I want to be able to show them that they were wrong and that you’re never too big or too small to do what you put your mind to.”
Jets undrafted rookie Xavier Gipson stole the show Monday night with his walk-off punt return TD.
The Hard Knocks darling is from Dallas and attended Woodrow Wilson HS.
His middle school principal sent me this quote from his high school yearbook.
— Jonah Javad (@JonahJavad) September 12, 2023
Even though Gipson was only 5-foot-9, his speed (he runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash) and shiftiness caught enough attention for him to become a two-star recruit. He committed to play at SMU, but academic issues and a late push from SFA flipped him to the FCS program in 2019.
Offensive coordinator Matt Storm figured out SFA had found a special talent in Gipson’s first game, when he stood out against a Baylor team that eventually played in the Sugar Bowl, with a roster full of NFL talent. Gipson had three catches for a game-high 61 yards.
“We were like: Oh, baby, this guy, he moves at a different pace out there,” Storm said. “In practice, we’d laugh and say: We can’t overthrow this guy.”
Gipson finished his freshman year with 934 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, and another 841 yards and nine touchdowns during the COVID-19 season in 2020. In his third year, he “nearly single-handedly beat Texas Tech,” Carthel said, in the second game of the season.
With a little more than one minute remaining, SFA trailing Texas Tech by 6 points, the Lumberjacks had the ball at the Red Raiders’ 7-yard-line. At that point, Gipson had already burned them: 13 catches for 158 yards. On that last play, quarterback Trae Self threw it to Gipson, but Texas Tech defenders tackled him before the pass got there, Carthel said, and no flag was thrown. Still, Gipson finished that season as an FCS All-American after getting 1,367 yards and 15 touchdowns, and also scoring on a 70-yard punt return.
“He’s just so electric and smooth with the ball in his hands,” Carthel said. “There’s people that are faster than he is just on a watch, in terms of straight speed, but the sucker just floats and glides and very seldom gets tackled hard. He can start and stop on a dime and he’s got a knack, great ball skills. And he’s fearless.”
After that season, FBS teams came calling, offering him “six figures worth of money” in Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) deals to transfer, Carthel said. Gipson didn’t want to leave, but that was a lot of money to turn down. Storm canceled a recruiting trip in California to focus on getting Gipson to stay. Storm, Carthel and other coaches “rallied the troops” to get him NIL money in Nacogdoches, and eventually he agreed to stay for “a tenth of what he could’ve made” had he left, Carthel said.
“They showed me love. They never put me in the wrong position. So it was like: Why not?” Gipson said. “I didn’t want to leave my brothers. … My goal was to show that anyone can make it (to the NFL) no matter where you go to school.”
He always wanted to leave a legacy at SFA.
“He wanted to change this place and be an icon and a legend at Stephen F. Austin forever,” Self said. “Which he did.”
Xavier Gipson ⤵️ 😎
✅ SFA Career Receiving Yards Leader
✅ WAC Offensive Player of the Year
— Lumberjack Football (@SFA_Football) September 2, 2022
At the end of offseason workouts in May, Aaron Rodgers shouted out Gipson in a news conference as a standout in those practices. When Gipson went home to Dallas, he met up with Self to practice, every day for two weeks.
At those practice sessions, Gipson wanted to simulate live reps with Rodgers at quarterback, so he taught Self the things Rodgers would do, say and the things he’d be looking for on Gipson’s routes.
“He wanted me to imitate him,” Self said. “I’m telling him a play in the huddle and then we break the huddle like we’re driving up the field, and he was giving me tips about what Aaron does.”
They would do that six or seven times, and then start over.
Gipson knew he had to fight his way onto the Jets roster, and that Rodgers would be the quarterback he’d have to win over. It clearly worked. In training camp, Gipson even occasionally received some first-team reps with Rodgers at quarterback, no small feat for an undrafted rookie. Rodgers raved about him behind the scenes, as seen on “Hard Knocks,” and with each subsequent practice and preseason game, he won over more teammates and coaches.
In the Hall of Fame Game to open the preseason against the Browns, Gipson muffed his first punt return in the first quarter, then turned around and returned a kickoff 45 yards in the second quarter. In the next preseason game, against the Panthers, he had a 14-yard punt return. Against the Buccaneers, a 31-yard punt return, and another 20-yard return in the preseason finale against the Giants, where he also managed seven catches for 79 yards — and got another shoutout from Rodgers after the game.
By that point, Jets coaches already knew he would make the 53-man roster — but Gipson didn’t. Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas played that up, pretending like he was about to get released on cutdown day before pulling the rug out from under him to say: You’re a Jet.
— NFL (@NFL) September 5, 2023
Garrett Wilson, the Jets’ No. 1 wide receiver and a first-round pick last year, called Gipson a “special person.”
“He has a huge heart,” Wilson said before Week 1. “He was consistent (in training camp). That’s one of those words that’s everything in football, how consistent can you do it. Zay embodies that. He came out every day and was the same person. … He’s got a special ability. I tell him, if you can do that every day, you’re going to be one of the top dudes in this league for a while. He’s got all the ability in the world. …
“I’m happy he’s on our team because he can ball and y’all will be hip on that here soon.”
People were hip after Week 1, certainly. Gipson won AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his game-winning performance. Nobody, it seemed, was surprised. When the Bills got the ball first in overtime — after an emotional night when Rodgers tore his Achilles after four plays and the Jets had to fight back from an early 13-3 deficit — Carthel thought to himself: Here we go.
Gipson fielded the punt at the 35-yard line and, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he had a 0.8 percent chance of scoring at that moment.
That morning, Gipson had FaceTimed with Self and told him: “I’m gonna get me one, watch.”
Jets running back Breece Hall, before every punt, pulls Gipson aside on the sideline. “I always tell him: If they kick it to you, go make them pay,” Hall said. “Once he crossed the 50, I thought: OK, we’re going to be fine.”
“Once you give that guy just a little breath, a window of opportunity, he’s gone,” Carthel said.
Gipson dodged the first Bills defender, cut past a sea of more down the left side of the field, had some space cleared from a teammate’s block, juked Bills punter Sam Martin at the 10-yard line and then crossed into the end zone. Per Next Gen, he covered 99.2 yards on his 65-yard touchdown run.
“I was so excited for that kid,” Rodgers said on “The Pat McAfee Show” on Friday. “Because he’s such an awesome kid.”
He celebrated with his teammates and then, on his way off the field, was interviewed by ESPN, an undrafted rookie, more than 1,500 miles from Nacogdoches. In that moment, he was at the center of the football world.
“He’s on worldwide television, they’re sticking a microphone in his face, millions of people are watching him and all he does is thank his teammates,” Carthel said. “People know who he is now. He’s going to end up being a legend.”
Boyer saw this coming.
After the predraft workout, Boyer got lunch with Gipson in Nacogdoches. Everyone at the restaurant knew him. “They all came up, they all gave him hugs and he always had a smile on his face,” Boyer said.
Boyer knew, if the Jets could get Gipson in the NFL Draft, or after, they wouldn’t regret it. He’d win over his teammates, and coaches, just like he won over Boyer, and everyone at SFA. When he went undrafted, one team offered Gipson significantly more guaranteed money than the Jets did, which was $150,000.
But Gipson wanted to stick with Boyer, like he did with Stephen F. Austin when all those FBS schools came calling.
“Loyalty, that’s the most important thing for me,” Gipson said. “He worked me out, came to my visit, and it’s like: Why not stay with someone that showed me that love?”
Boyer was rewarded with a touchdown on Monday night.
“Those are the kind of guys you want to be around,” Boyer said. “Those are the kind of guys you cheer for.”
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.