The 1996 Topps Football set arrived at an interesting time in my life. I graduated from high school in June of ’96 and by the time Topps released its football product in the fall, I had already failed out of college. A one and done, if you will. Shortly after it’s release, I was on to my second college where I did indeed manage to stay and eventually get my degree.
Much like my college career, the 1996 Topps set has its high points and some painfully low points.
The card design of the base set is very attractive. It offers a rich, crisp often in action imagery of the players with a minimally invasive card design. A few prime examples of the exceptional photography include base cards of Brett Favre getting ready to release one of his classic rockets downfield.
The Emmitt Smith card showcases the NFL’s all time leading rusher bursting through the formative line in what feels like high definition. Each base card offers the Topps 40th Anniversary foil stamped logo, adding a nice touch to the card.
The base set was a single series 448 card offering that could be found in 36 pack hobby boxes, jumbo boxes, 440 card cereal boxed sets in a few forms along with the standard Topps factory sets. ‘Broadway’ Joe Namath and Steve Young were featured prominently on all the marketing materials and packaging of the product.
It boasts a few of the obvious rookies if we are talking in terms of draft status and anticipated big names as you will find the New York Jets number one overall pick wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Heisman Trophy winner and new Houston Oiler Eddie George as well as future Hall of Famer in Indianapolis Marvin Harrison and Tampa Bay Buccaneer battering ram Mike Alstott.
Unfortunately for collectors, the list of rookies missing from the set is more notable than the list of rookies on the checklist as Topps blew the coverage on flagship rookie cards of one of the greatest defensive players of all time in Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, Hall of Famer and Philadelphia Eagles icon Brian Dawkins as well as one of the most gifted wide receivers of all time and perennial lightning rod Terrell Owens. New England Patriots linebacker great Tedy Bruschi was also lacking a base rookie card.
Let’s focus on what this particular set did have going for it.
The set had the fan favorite, long running subsets of the 1,000 Yard Club featuring every running back and receiver that eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in the prior season. Also featured is the newer 3,000 Yard Club with cardboard focusing on quarterbacks that threw for more than 3,000 yards in the prior season.
It had a mediocre selection of insert sets. Topps did offer a very cool 40th Anniversary retro insert set featuring many of the time period’s superstars with a throwback design to memorable Topps cards from the past. One star player was represented on each and every Topps card design from the beginning of the company’s run in 1956 up until the prior year’s design of the 1995 set. My personal favorite is the 1958 inspired card design featuring Barry Sanders in a throwback Lions uniform in a pose paying homage to Jim Brown’s iconic rookie card from that particular season.
The 1970 Topps inspired Marshall Faulk card is very cool as well.
The release was Joe Namath heavy as it featured reprints of each of the Jets icon’s base Topps cards throughout his illustrious career. They even produced a poster commemorating all of them that was limited to 4000.
The 1996 Topps set also featured “Broadway’s Reviews,” on which Joe offered his take on current NFL superstar quarterbacks of the day including legends such as John Elway, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, among others.
The Hobby Masters insert set was a prismatic feature of 20 of the biggest superstars in the NFL and in Hobby shops around the country. The insert set features flashy cards of many stars including the Elways, Rices and Seaus of the football world.
The product also featured an insert set by the name of Turf Warriors which features an in-action shot of 22 of the biggest stars in football on a grassy backdrop.
In interesting and completely dated card and technology found in the release (but also one that was the birth of what we see happening with digital cards and even NFTs today) was a promotional card for Topps Cyber Cards. The Cyber card offered a CD-ROM full of highlights, interactive stats and more.
Aside from the iconic and classic flagship Topps set, one of the next great leveling ups in sports card history, Topps Chrome made its debut in 1996 housing great rookie cards of the aforementioned Marvin Harrison, Keyshawn Johnson and Eddie George but again it lacked many of the great names listed above that were missed in the Topps set. One can only imagine how iconic a Ray Lewis Topps Chrome rookie card would have been.
Today, 1996 Topps football hobby boxes can be purchased for between $45 and $60 online all day long. Jumbo boxes will run you about $60 and factory sets usually are a bit more but can be found for less if you’re patient.
Trying to keep in mind what the sports card landscape looked like back in 1996, this was a solid but not spectacular release for the company during a season in which you would expect fireworks for a 40th Anniversary party.