The long-awaited Grey Cup is over for another year, and football fans got the chance to see an instant classic. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers scored a 33-25 win over the host Hamilton Tiger-Cats in overtime in one of the greatest CFL games ever played.
In the hobby, collectors always speculate that championships will equate to rising card values. Sometimes, that is true. For the Canadian Football League, however, there is not much of a hobby for collectors to speculate on. Upper Deck produced CFL card set for a few years, but did not have a product in 2021. They produced a set in 2020, but with no season last year and with the 2021 season up in the air for several months, there was no fresh photography available and no certainty about what the season would look like.
Through the years, a player who begins his pro career in the CFL and then heads to the NFL to become a superstar has been the formula for success for driving CFL collectibles. The problem is that those players are few and far between, and the availability of CFL collectibles has been inconsistent through the decades.
The 1983 Jogo Warren Moon rookie card and the 1971 Joe Theismann O-Pee-Chee rookie card are the two most sought after CFL cards among all CFL collectors. They have very different stories, as the Moon card is in a limited-edition issue available only by the set. Theismann’s card came out in 1971, which was the second last year of CFL football cards being made and marketed by a larger manufacturer and available in retail stores.
In Canada, the Moon and Theismann cards are rookie cards. In the US, they have always had the pre-rookie card or XRC designation.
This year, there was talk of that 1971 CFL season, as that special year marked its 50th anniversary. The 1971 Grey Cup was one of the most memorable in history, with rookie quarterback Theismann and the Toronto Argonauts losing to the Calgary Stampeders in the pouring rain in Vancouver. Toronto’s star running back, Leon McQuay, fumbled inside the Calgary 10-yard-line in the final moments of the game. In his three years in Toronto, it was Theismann’s only Grey Cup appearance. The Argos of that era are considered the best team to never win the Grey Cup.
While the CFL was at its peak in popularity in 1971, that year also marked the greatest year for CFL collectibles. The 1971 O-Pee-Chee football card set is a staple for any CFL collector. The 10-cent wax packs were just like their American cousins except for the CFL and OPC logos.
That year also saw the CFL’s first and only nationally distributed sticker book, which was available at grocery stores from coast to coast throughout the year.
The 1971 O-Pee-Chee football card set featured about a dozen players who had either played in the NFL or AFL, or would go on to play in the NFL. McQuay, for example, would head south in 1974 to play in the NFL for three seasons. Edmonton quarterback Don Trull spent six years in the AFL with the Houston Oilers and Boston Patriots before heading north to Edmonton.
While Theismann and the cross-border stars legitimize the 1971 O-Pee-Chee set to American football collectors, there are CFL stars, both Canadian and American-born, who are popular among Canadian collectors. Tony Gabriel, one of the greatest Canadian tight ends in CFL history, has his rookie card in this set. He starred at Syracuse before joining his hometown Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He was eventually traded to the Ottawa Rough Riders and was the hero of Ottawa’s 1976 Grey Cup win over Saskatchewan.
American stars who became CFL legends in this set include Tom Wilkinson. When Moon came to Edmonton, he backed up Wilkinson before he got a chance to take the reigns during the Eskimos’ five-year Grey Cup dynasty from 1978-82. George Reed, Angelo Mosca, Garney Henley, Joe Zuger, Tommy Joe Coffey, Ron Lancaster and Sonny Wade are among the American or “import” superstars who were collectible household names in Canada.
Today, complete sets, Theismann rookies, single cards and even some surviving O-Pee-Chee packs can be found on eBay.
1971 Sargent Sticker Book
One of the biggest successes of 1971 was a one-and-done.
Sargent produced an album that would hold 225 stickers or stamps.
Each week, grocery stores across Canada would release a sheet of 15 stickers or stamps. Throughout the promotion, each sheet of stickers was only available for seven days. After that, it was onto the next sheet. The marketing idea behind the set is that CFL fans, and in particular their kids, would demand that their parents go to the store once every week to make sure they got that week’s stickers.
The album featured spots for 25 players of each of the league’s nine teams. Collectors would lick the backs of the stamps and affix them into the correct spot in the book. Many of the photos used for the stickers are the same photos used on the O-Pee-Chee cards from that year. Theismann is one of the many rookies in the set.
During that time, CFL teams only dressed 32 players for games. So having 25 players from each team in the sticker book set was remarkable. They’re much tougher to find in quantity than the OPC cards but sheets, singles and lots are available.
Collectors in Canada were already accustomed to collecting stickers and filling promotional albums. The 1970-71 Esso NHL Power Players sticker album and set was available at Esso gas stations during the 1970-71 hockey season.
That sticker album was one of the most successful NHL sticker promotions to ever hit the Canadian hobby. Fifty years later, it remains popular, and visible, both on eBay and at hockey-oriented shows like the Expo in Toronto.
Fond Memories For Theismann
While the 1971 O-Pee-Chee football cards and stickers remain on the radar because of Joe Theismann, the Super Bowl champion has always looked back on his time in Toronto fondly.
“Toronto has always been like home for me, especially because tow of my children were born there,” Theismann said in an interview with Canadian Sports Collector on a trip to Toronto a little over a decade ago.
“We had a special team and special group of guys,” he added. “There were some great friendships that developed on that team.”
Theismann had been selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. He was also chosen in the 39th round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Minnesota Twins. He is one of two quarterbacks to wear number 7 for the Argos who were selected in that draft. Condredge Holloway, who won the 1983 Grey Cup for Toronto, was picked fourth overall in the 1971 MLB Draft by the Montreal Expos. Both college quarterbacks turned down other offers to play football in Canada. Theismann signed with Toronto for $50,000 per season.
“People who criticize the CFL are ignorant of what the league is and what the Canadian game is,” Theismann said. “It had a huge impact on my career, and if you ask Warren Moon, Doug Flutie or Jeff Garcia, they will tell you the same thing.”