They weren’t singing about cardboard when the tune “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition was getting regular radio airplay, but it’s one collectors might be humming when they try to piece together a nice 1971 Topps football set. High-grade cards from this set are a tough lot.
The set mirrors the baseball product of the same year — the cards chip easily, and when they do it’s apparent. Whereas the baseball cards are framed in black, the football cards came with bright red and blue borders.
The set contained 263 cards in two series. The first series cards are numbered from 1 to 131, while Series 2 cards are numbered from 132 to 263. A pack of cards cost a dime, and in a typical pack, collectors would receive eight cards, a pin-up poster and a game card — and oh yes, that hard stick of gum.
1971 Topps Football Card Grading
There have been 50,827 cards submitted to PSA for grading, and only 68 have been certified as gem mint. And 1,921 cards have earned PSA 9 grades. Seven different players have examples of PSA cards, but it is the most valuable card in the set — Card No. 156, Terry Bradshaw — that has the most gem mint examples. The Bradshaw rookie card has three certified PSA 10 cards. Card No. 1, of Johnny Unitas, has no gem mint cards from PSA.
Meanwhile, 3,573 cards have been submitted to SGC for grading, and only one card — No. 120, Fran Tarkenton — graded as high as SGC 98. There are 103 at SGC 96, including four Bradshaw rookies.
Rookie Cards and Hall of Famers
The set has a solid group of first-year cards. In addition to Bradshaw, there are rookie cards for Hall of Famers Joe Greene (No. 245), Ken Houston (No. 113), Willie Lanier (No. 114), Roger Wehrli (No. 188) and Charlie Sanders (No. 210). Other notable rookies include Marty Schottenheimer (No. 3), Ron Johnson (No. 51), Duane Thomas (No. 65), Mercury Morris (No. 91), Garo Yepremian (No. 121) and Mark Moseley (No. 257).
In addition to Tarkenton, Hall of Famers in this set includes Unitas, Dick Butkus (No. 25), George Blanda (No. 39), Larry Csonka (No. 45), Sonny Jurgensen (No. 50), Gale Sayers (No. 150), Bart Starr (No. 200), Joe Namath (No. 250) and O.J. Simpson (No. 260).
The red and blue borders came into play to distinguish the AFC players (red cards) from the NFC (blue cards). All-Star cards mixed both colors, with the top border in blue and the bottom in red. These color patterns were a marked change from some of the bland designs Topps had used during the 1960s, and predictably, collectors loved the vivid, bold colors.
Most photos of the players showed them without wearing helmets, and the top part depicts their names in large block letters. Beneath the photo, the team name is in even larger block letters, with the players’ position listed underneath. The conference the player belonged to is under the team name, on the right side of the card.
The card backs include the player’s biographical information, card number in a box, statistics where applicable and fun facts. There is also a cartoon of the player.
Getting back to those card conditions, not only is it tough to find 1971 cards in top grade, it is even tougher to put together a complete set in NM/MT. Vetteboys has the current No. 1 1971 Topps football set on the PSA registry. The set is 100 percent complete and has a weighted GPA of 9.06. It has a set rating of 10.03.
What makes this set tough to assemble in high grade are the miscut cards that were so typical of Topps products of the 1960s and ’70s. Also, one little nick on a corner would be glaringly obvious, given the bright red and blue borders of the cards.
Today, crease-free complete sets in the EX or EX/NM range typically cost at least $300 with better ungraded sets climbing to $600 or more. In 2016, a high quality set including 46 graded cards sold for a whopping $6,572.
There were two inserts that accompanied the 1971 set. Game cards, similar in concept to the ones issued for the 1968 Topps baseball set, came one to a pack. The 53-card set has a player’s head shot (top and bottom of the card) and a diagonal stripe that contains his team’s name. At the top and bottom of the card is the result of a play (touchdown, fumble, 5-yard loss) There are 52 players, and card No. 53 is a first down/field marker that is used with the game.
The backs of the cards are light blue and have four Topps logos inserted inside football helmets that mark all four corners. There is a large football in the middle of the card. Predictably, the most valuable cards in the set are those of Bradshaw, Namath, Simpson and Unitas.
The second insert was a mini-poster set of 32 players. They measured 5 inches by 7 inches and were folded twice before being inserted into wax packs. The front features the player’s name at the top in block letters, with the last name in much larger type. The player’s position is located directly beneath his name. The team name is situated under the player’s head shot. The poster back displayed a football field with side markers.
Because the posters were folded, finding one in mint condition is virtually impossible. But then again, it mirrors the main set when it comes to tradition. The 1971 Topps football set is challenging, but its star power makes it a favorite among vintage football collectors.
You can see singles, lots, sets and inserts from 1971 Topps football on eBay by clicking here.