Forty years later, the 1976 Topps football set remains a sweet product to collect.
The ’76 set was driven by one major card — No.148, which was the rookie card of Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. “Sweetness” had a Hall of Fame career, and his card continues to soar in value. Higher grade Payton cards are by no means cheap, but if you’re looking to build your football card collection around some key players, then the Payton card belongs in the conversation.
A quick look at PSA’s Population Repor shows that 6,466 of Payton’s rookie cards have been submitted for grading. Of that number, 49 attained a gem mint grade, while 643 were graded at PSA 9. Currently, one eBay seller offering a Payton rookie graded 9, is asking for a staggering buy-it-now price of $4,444. In October 2014, a PSA 10 Payton rookie sold for a little over $10,000.
There is more than Walter Payton to the 1976 Topps football set, however. The ’76 product was the fourth consecutive out of 10 sets to contain 528 cards. Back in the bi-centennial year, wax packs cost 15 cents and included 10 cards per pack. Or, for a quarter, a collector could buy an 18-card cello pack.
The set included first-year cards of the NFL’s two new expansion teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Rookies and Hall of Famers
But in addition to Payton, the set has some solid rookie cards, including several players who would reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Jack Lambert, Harvey Martin and Randy White. Other notable rookies include Steve Bartkowski, Russ Francis, Steve Grogan, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Ron Jaworski and Randy Gradishar.
And there are many other Hall of Famers scattered throughout the set. The list is impressive: Terry Bradshaw, Alan Page, Fred Biletnikoff, Bob Griese, George Blanda, Paul Warfield, John Riggins, Willie Lanier, Franco Harris, Len Dawson, Dan Fouts, Ray Guy, Fran Tarkenton, Curley Culp, Roger Staubach, Larry Csonka, Mel Renfro, Mel Blount, O.J. Simpson and Charley Taylor.
It’s tough to find a Bradshaw card in higher grade. There are only three PSA 10s, for example. Of the 196 Jaworski rookies submitted to PSA, only one came back graded gem mint.
The design for the set was straightforward. While Topps’ habit of airbrushing logos on helmets and uniforms continued with this set, the large player photographs, framed by a white border, still made for an attractive-looking set. The bottom of the card includes a football-like icon, with the team name included in large letters. The player’s name and position are placed at the bottom right-hand part of the card, opposite the football icon.
The card backs contain a blue bar at the top of the card, with the player’s vital statistics underneath. The player’s year-by-year record is positioned at the bottom of the card. To the far right there is either a mystery question about that player’s team, or a trivia cartoon. A small helmet adorns the top left corner of the card, with a black number inserted on top of the helmet’s orange crown.
Subsets and Super Teams
The 1976 set includes several subsets. Record Breakers (Nos. 1-8) pay tribute to players who surpassed milestones during the 1975 season. Leaders (Nos. 201 to 206) depict players who led various statistical categories. Cards 331 to 333 recall the NFC and AFC title games, along with Super Bowl X. For the first time, team checklists were included in the main set, ranging from card Nos. 451 to 478. In addition, there was a mail-in offer that allowed collectors to obtain the 28 team checklists plus two “regular” checklists. The difference is that these cards were made of thinner stock.
One lure of this set is that it contains many stars of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, two of the glamour teams of the 1970s. The Lambert card probably ranks second behind the Payton rookie as the most valuable—and coveted — card in the set. But there are plenty of cards from each team to keep a 1970s collector happy.
Complete sets are now a little pricey because of the increased prices for the Payton rookie but you can still buy a solid one for $200-$300.
The 1976 Topps football set offered variety, plenty of Hall of Famers and cards at (mostly) reasonable prices. The Payton rookie will be costly if you’re inclined to seek out only the best. But even the raw cards have some value–not to mention plenty of memories of one of the NFL’s great backs.
And that’s a sweet scenario for football card collectors.