When the 2023 NFL Draft came to a close back in April, one of the FCS’ best players was left wondering what was next after not hearing his name called. Xavier Gipson, former receiver and return specialist for Stephen F. Austin, looked on as ten other standouts from the subdivision got picked. Even Gipson’s former teammate, defensive end B.J. Thompson, got the call. He, however, didn’t.
It was a turn of events that was surprising to those who follow that level of football because anyone who knows the FCS knows that few players in the nation were more explosive than Gipson had been in recent years. The Dallas native played four season at SFA where he practically rewrote the program's record books. His 4,305 collegiate receiving yards topped the Lumberjacks all-time list and his 37 touchdowns did as well.
Those sort of numbers had Gipson appearing on several award lists, especially during his senior season in 2022 including landing him a spot as a Walter Payton Award finalist. All of that, however, didn’t end up getting him drafted and so he had to make his way into the NFL via a different route.
The New York Jets signed Gipson as an undrafted free agent in the spring, giving him that foot in the door he needed. Throughout the summer he worked with the NY receivers and special teams with the hopes that every undrafted player has: landing a spot on that final 53-man roster. That, of course, never comes easy and it often doesn’t come at all for players in his position.
Jets head coach Robert Saleh saw enough in Gipson during camp to give him his fair shot during the NFL preseason last month but again it was no guarantee of anything. In New York’s opening exhibition against Cleveland in the Hall of Fame game, Gipson’s night didn’t go as planned. He was targeted twice, and fumbled once. His only real highlight was a 45-yard kick return. Not exactly a performance that gets the coaching staff and GM excited.
Gipson shook off his rocky start, though, and turned things around, especially on the special teams unit. He finished his preseason with 117 punt return yards and 84 kick return yards. A final showing against the Giants where he hauled in seven passes for 79 yards to lead the team put him over the top. It was enough to keep him around on the Jets roster, at least for the start of the season.
Fast forward to Monday night and likely the most anticipated Jets home opener in a good long time. Aaron Rodgers was set to make his long-awaited debut in the Big Apple facing division foe Buffalo and it was supposed to finally turn around the fortunes for the snake bitten franchise. Hope was abound at MetLife Stadium.
Then it happened.
Everyone knows by now what “it” is. Rodgers, on the fourth snap of his New York career, tore his achilles clean through. He was carted off the field before thousands upon thousands of gut-wrenched Jets fans. The mood changed in an instant. If ever the NY faithful believed in a curse, it was that moment.
Zach Wilson and company slowly but steadily revived the crowd with a solid performance that kept the Bills, who were now heavily favored, within striking distance. A whirlwind last second field goal from Buffalo bounced off the upright and in, sending the game to overtime, again much to the dismay of the home crowd.
By this point, the Jets and their fans had been through a roller coaster of emotions and feelings. And it appeared as though, some how... some way... the football gods would find a way to rip their hearts out even further before the night was over. It still seemed like it was the Bills game to lose.
Enter Xavier Gipson.
The rookie, whose NFL road was anything but easy, lined up to field a punt a little over five minutes into overtime. Gipson snagged the ball at the Jets 35-yard line and cut it back to the left side of the field. Suddenly he found a wide open lane and a cavalcade of blockers. He bolted 65 yards down the sideline before an ecstatic crowd that got louder with each move he made. He pushed by punter Sam Martin and into the end zone. Chaos erupted in MetLife.
It was the exact type of play that New York needed. Will it fix a whole season without Rodgers under center? No. Does it change the fact that the odds are very much against the Jets in a lot of the games down the road? Not at all. It doesn’t promise a playoff berth or even a winning record.
But at the moment an entire fanbase and city needed something to be joyous about, the undrafted Gipson put on a hero’s cape and gave that fanbase precisely what it sought.
MNF hero undrafted rookie Xavier Gipson on his walk-off TD pic.twitter.com/PPRLFLtGCR— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 12, 2023