Football cards have been underrated for years. Even a price surge in the early 1990s that brought them up from the ridiculously cheap to the ‘respectable’ level hasn’t bridged what is sometimes a sizable gap between the greatest football cards and their baseball cousins. Don’t get the idea that the best of the best are dirt cheap, though. If you’re fascinated by the game’s history and it’s great players, rookie cards are often the way to go. We’ve got a list of ten all-time great football cards that should one day be in your collection.
If money is no object, a pair of cards from the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set would be an impressive addition. The rookie cards of Hall of Fame legendary figures Red Grange (#4) and Jim Thorpe (#6) are keys in this early set, which featured athletes from several different sports, including Babe Ruth.
Grange, nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost,” can arguably be called football’s first “superstar.” After an incredible high school career in Wheaton,Ill., Grange enrolled at the University of Illinois where he led the Fighting Illini to the national championship in 1923. A three-time All-American, Grange was named by ESPN as the greatest college football player of all time in 2008.
Thorpe, one of America’s most versatile athletes of all time, won gold medals in the 1912 Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon, played college football, and later played both professional baseball and football. Born on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, Thorpe was voted the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
The 1948 Bowman set featured the rookie card (#22) of Sammy Baugh. Slingin’ Sammy was credited with popularizing the forward pass in the NFL, which is reason enough to chase this black and white landmark. One of his more memorable performances was in his rookie season of 1937 with the Washington Redskins, leading them to the NFL championship. The 1948 Bowman Baugh is true classic.
Bowman set also featured other notable rookies such as Bob Waterfield, Johnny Lujack and Sid Luckman.
The quarterback with the high top shoes made his football card debut (#138) in Topps’ 1957 set. The ’57 set included 32 Hall of Famers and was unique due to it’s horizontal front design. Johnny Unitas went on to lead the Baltimore Colts to the championship in 1958 against the New York Giants, generally regarded as the greatest game ever played and credited with solidifying professional football as a national sport. It can be argued that the 1957 Topps Johnny Unitas is one of the top three most important post-War football cards.
The 1958 Topps set boasted the rookie card of the player many consider the greatest player of all time, Jim Brown (#62). In Jim Thorpe’s class as an elite all-round athlete, Brown may also have been one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time. Brown retired relatively early at age 29 and is still the only running back in NFL history to average over 100 yards a game for his career. Susceptible to wear because of the black color surrounding the oval photo, high grade examples of the 1958 Topps Jim Brown have been solid investments.
“Broadway Joe” Willie Namath’s rookie card, (#122) highlights Topps’ oversized 1965 set, which also featured Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Willie Brown. One of the most prized football cards of the last 45 years, Namath’s popularity among collectors remains strong. In 1969 Namath led his New York Jets to one of the biggest upsets in professional sports championship history in Super Bowl III over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. Tough to find in near mint condition because of the size and centering issues, the 1965 Topps Joe Namath is a card collecting icon.
One of the fiercest competitors to ever don shoulder pads, Walter Payton’s rookie card (#148) is the gem of Topps 1976 set. After a sterling career at small-college Jackson State, the legendary Chicago Bear became one of the most popular Chicago athletes ever, ranking alongside Michael Jordan, Ernie Banks and Frank Thomas.
Joe Montana will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Known for his cool, unflappable on field demeanor, Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowls and won all four of them. His Topps 1981 rookie card (#216) is highly sought after by collectors who grew up in the ’80s and early 90s.
Topps’ 1984 set will always be one of their most popular modern issues due to the rookie cards of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, John Elway (#63) and Dan Marino (#123). Elway, the undisputed King of the Comeback Victory, played his entire star-studded career with the Denver Broncos, and is still revered in the Mile High City. Marino, who held nearly every passing record until Brett Favre came along, will unfortunately be remembered as never having won a Super Bowl while with the Miami Dolphins, but few quarterbacks possessed the incredible arm or passing accuracy of Number 13.