Unlike baseball, with its solid roots back to the 19th century, football card sets are primarily a 1950s-present game. You’ve got your 1935 National Chicle and a couple of late-1940s sets courtesy of Bowman and Leaf, but other than that, it’s a modern era hobby.
There are plenty of pricey rookie cards sprinkled throughout the past six decades, but the good thing about old football cards is that you can still have a nice collection of memorable players in nice shape for a relatively small investment. Whether you’re looking to start a collection or add to one, these are fun to own.
Here’s a list of 20 relevant pre-1980 cards that make the ‘cool list’. The best part? You can buy just about all of them at less than $100 each in ungraded but very nice shape–and many won’t cost nearly that much. Click the blue links to see them for sale and auction on eBay.
1959 Topps Max McGee: He wasn’t a star in 1966. He was long gone from the list of players considered for inclusion in the small mid-1960s football card sets. He wasn’t even supposed to play much for the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I…if at all. But you know the story. Max, always the life of the party, strolled back to the team hotel in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Pressed into action, he catches two Bart Starr touchdown passes in the Pack’s win over Kansas City, cementing his Super Bowl legend. His rookie card is a must for any football fan with a sense of history–or a secret wish to have lived life like Max did. $30.
1960 Fleer Jack Kemp: Kemp proved that football players weren’t dumb. He had a nice career with the Buffalo Bills in the AFL, but gained much bigger fame as a Congressman and presidential candidate. The football card community has never been loyal to any one particular party, so Kemp’s rookie card has always gotten respect, especially since it comes from the AFL’s first season. $80
1960 Topps John Unitas: Johnny U always seemed to be #1 in the football card sets produced during his reign as the king of quarterbacks. This one shows him in all of his flat-top glory, but it’s also a lilttle quirky in that it appears as if John is in some sort of daze, staring wide-eyed at the Topps photographer. Cool and bizarre at the same time, it’s an affordable way to grab an old school legend. $95.
1963 Topps Mike Ditka: His 1962 Topps rookie card is condition-sensitive and quite expensive, but we like Mike’s second year card just as well. The Bears were NFL champions that year thanks in large part to Ditka who led the team in receptions. It was a season that really launched his NFL career and the ’63 design is the first that used really high-quality photography. A classic that’s priced right. $75
1966 Philadelphia Ray Nitschke: Look at him. Smiling! Nitschke never smiled on the field where he terrorized running backs and receivers, but off it he was a gentle curmudgeon with a great sense of humor. He’s in his prime here, as are Lombardi’s Packers. $35
1966 Philadelphia Jim Brown: He never actually played a down in 1966, choosing to retire in July. This card just kind of puts the wraps on the career of one of the greatest players of all-time. A Pro Bowl player every year of his career; 1957-65. $80
1969 Topps Joe Namath: Buying cards from players who are forever linked to certain years is an underrated method of collecting. For many, a Namath rookie is out of reach, but ’69 was Joe’s year. Without the Super Bowl victory, he’s Bobby Layne in a mink coat. With it, he’s Broadway Joe. $75? I’ll take two.
1970 Topps Len Dawson: “Leonard”, as Hank Stram called him, proved the AFL’s win in Super Bowl III was no fluke, leading the Chiefs past the Vikings the next year. Dawson was an AFL guy through and through, the more conservative face of the league in relation to the flamboyant Namath. This is card #1 in the ’70 set, honoring the Super Bowl IV MVP. Not a cinch to find in high-grade, but still a relatively cheap Hall of Famer. $30
1970 Topps Tom Dempsey: If you grew up in the 1970s, you knew Tom Dempsey. Born without toes on his right foot, Dempsey managed to become a very good NFL kicker who wore a modified shoe. The front was flat and the debate continues to this day about whether it somehow gave Dempsey an unfair advantage, but his place in history is secure thanks to his record-setting 63-yard field goal to beat the Lions in 1970. This is his rookie card and a cool little piece of NFL history. $5
1971 Topps Marty Schottenheimer: Joining the likes of Tom Landry, Tom Flores, Ted Marchibroda, Mike Ditka as member of the football card coaches club, Schottenheimer had only one card and this is it. Better known as a coach than he was as a player, you’ll amaze your non-collecting friends by pulling this baby out. $20
1972 Topps Gene Upshaw: Upshaw, of course, was playing long before he got his first football card. Better late than never. He was becoming a Hall of Famer and Topps finally put him in their ’72 set. Upshaw is the only player to take the field in the Super Bowl in three different decades (1960s, 70s and 80s) which illustrates how good the Raiders actually were at one time (and makes for a great trivia question). He died in 2008 after serving as the NFL Player’s Association boss for several years. $20
1972 Topps Bob Griese: Griese was sort of the Bart Starr of the ’70s. Efficient, smart and definitely not allergic to winning. The perfect season 1972 Dolphins were just…cool… and even with his old school glasses, Griese was among the coolest. He also had an ‘in action’ card in this set–as did most of the other stars of the day–and a pricey ‘All Pro’ from the high number series, but we’ll take the standard issue card from a team for the ages. $20
1972 Topps Archie Manning: You’ve got Peyton. You’ve got Eli. You have to have Archie. From the easy to find first series, this rookie card is one of the better 1970s bargains out there, considering the popularity of the Manning clan. A legendary college player and a good quarterback on some not-so-good teams in New Orleans. $20
1972 Topps Steve Spurrier: Maybe you don’t like him. Maybe you do. Still, there’s no denying Spurrier’s impact on the college game. Those who weren’t around in the ’70s don’t remember that Spurrier actually had a pretty long career as an NFL quarterback. He was a backup for much of it, but obviously learned a lot. His rookie card comes in the tough 1972 Topps high number series and is seldom cheap, but a nice card to own. He also had an ‘in action’ card that’s less expensive. $70
1973 Topps Ken Anderson: Proof that small school players can make a big impact in the NFL, Anderson came out of Augustana College. His numbers are among the best of any player of the era and his 15-year career was full of highs. In 2008, NFL Network picked Anderson as one of top 10 players who aren’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What’s that all about? He might get his Super Bowl ring as quarterbacks coach of the Steelers this Sunday. $20
1974 Topps Dick Butkus: Butkus was melding Hollywood with football by this time and his million dollar smile seems a little out of place on his final football card. It’s almost like he knew it was over. He’s one of those guys, though, who will always be in demand and you won’t find a cheaper Butkus card than this one, which puts a bow on a Hall of Fame career.
1975 Topps Lynn Swann: The 1970s Steelers were brute force, but Swann provided a touch of elegance. His catch in the Super Bowl is the stuff of legend, but Swann was much more than that one play. $50
1976 Topps Jack Lambert: You have Nitschke. You’ve got Butkus. You need Lambert to complete the tough guy trifecta. The value of this rookie card is second only to the Walter Payton rookie in the ’76 Topps set.
1977 Topps NFL Rushing Leaders: One card. Two tragic stories, both entirely different in nature. Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson were at the top of their game in ’76, winning their respective conference rushing titles and earning half of this leader card the following autumn. O.J. created headlines for all the wrong reasons once the lights faded. Payton’s 1852 yards rushing in ’76 were earned in the NFL’s final 14-game season schedule. Rest in peace, Walter. $20
1979 Topps Fran Tarkenton: He played forever. Minnesota. The New York Giants. Back to Minnesota. Because he never won a Super Bowl, some have forgotten just how good –and versatile–Tarkenton was. Sometimes prickly, he wasn’t always the most popular player in the NFL, but he was a big-time winner even without the big trophy and one of the best at making something out of nothing with his scrambling ability. This card was his final Topps issue and he was the only player in the last set of the 70s to be prominently linked to the ’60s. $10