The NFL celebrates its 100th anniversary season in 2019 and for card collectors, much has changed since the league’s last really big party 50 years ago. Sure, there were special patches and events associated with the league’s 75th birthday party in 1994 but the once sleepy league had really let loose in 1969 when it was becoming clear that pro football was exploding in popularity.
While we’ve chronicled the 1969 set before, we thought it would be fun to hop back in the time machine to highight five noteworthy cards from that 50th anniversary season.
With 43 Hall of Famers in the set, it’s not hard to find great players but this isn’t a “best players” kind of list. Here are five guys young collectors and fans were talking about 50 seasons ago.
After predicting a win, then leading the New York Jets to the American Football League’s first Super Bowl win over the NFL several months earlier, there were a lot of kids who couldn’t wait to pull his football card out of a 1969 pack. There is no doubt the Namath card was the most popular on the playground that fall. Of course, Topps saved him for card #100 (the best players usually got the most important numbers).
It’s a simple, traditional photo that was taken before all the fuss and certainly belied the playboy image that Namath was already building by the fall of ’69.
It’s among the most valuable cards in the set, but you can still find a very respectable copy on eBay for $50 or less.
It ended badly for Gabriel in ’69, being sacked for a safety and tossing an interception to Alan Page on what could have been the drive that put the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl IV. Yet on the whole, the popular veteran was the league’s best quarterback in ’69. He swept the post-season Player of the Year awards handed out by The Sporting News, UPI and The Newspaper Enterprise Association, throwing 24 TD passes with only seven picks.
Some think his career is worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame and it may happen some day. For less than five bucks, a card commemorating his greatest season is worth it.
What Gabriel was to quarterbacking in 1969, the Kansas Comet was to the ground game. He was the only NFL player to rush for over 1,000 yards in the 14-game schedule, despite a slow start following a severe, career-altering knee injury suffered in 1968.
His comeback was great. The Bears were awful. They finished 1-13 but with nothing to play for from the middle of October onward, Sayers remained a bright light for George Halas. Sadly, it was his last great season as another knee injury in 1970 effectively put an end to hopes for a long career. Sayers is still the youngest player ever elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A copy of Sayers’ 1969 card in fairly good quality will set you back around 30 bucks.
One of sports’ most tragic, yet heartwarming stories surrounds Piccolo and his friendship with Sayers, his backfield mate. An undersized fullback who earned a spot in the starting lineup in ’69, Piccolo scored a touchdown in a November game but then took himself out, was soon diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and died seven months later.
The friendship between Piccolo and Sayers, of course, became a best-selling book and popular movie, Brian’s Song. That’s one reason why Piccolo’s only mainstream football card is among the more valuable in the set.
If you were a kid in 1969 and this guy came out of the pack, the pronunciation of his last name was anyone’s guess. That would change in the years to come, when Csonka and the Miami Dolphins started playing on TV a lot and winning Super Bowls.
This is Zonk’s rookie card and easily the best one in the entire set. Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris would come a couple of years later but Csonka’s card is the unofficial kickoff of one of the NFL’s most legendary backfields. With eBay prices hovering under $50 even for higher-grade copies of this Hall of Famer, it’s really one of the better buys among cards from the era.