For the most part, the best football cards of the 80s have rarely changed. Many of the players collectors were anxious to pull in 1984, 1985 or 1986 are still considered elite today. Until 1989 when other companies received NFL licenses and changed the game, a player’s rookie card wasn’t issued until after his first pro season. That meant that we sometimes knew by then whether a player’s cards were going to be popular. While a few cards have moved up or down a few notches because of career performances, the list has been a comfort for collectors or investors who see opportunities in the best football cards of the 80s.
Click the linked text in the title of each section to see those specific cards on eBay.
The best rookie card in the 1980 Topps football set turned out to be Phil Simms. Now, this card did take a few years to gain traction. Simms won his Super Bowl with a 22 for 25 passing game versus the Broncos and then had another run when he led Bill Parcells’ Giants to a 10-0 start and another Super Bowl title a few years later. Today, he is still featured as a lead analyst on CBS games on their number one announcing team plus he makes a regular appearance on Inside the NFL, ensuring he’ll be remembered long after his playing career ends as countless generations will grow up watching him on television. You can buy a nice Simms rookie card for just a few bucks. Graded examples are much higher.
The key to the 1981 set is unquestionably Joe Montana. Again, Topps caught a break as his rookie card actually appeared a couple of years after he was drafted and then during that season he lead the 49ers to their first of four Super Bowl wins in nine seasons. Although there are plenty of Montana rookies available (as there are with almost all 1980s football cards), he will always be in demand as one of the most popular and productive quarterbacks of all-time.
Montana rookie cards vary greatly in higher grades–selling for anywhere from $100 for a near mint example to nearly $3,000 for a graded BGS 9.5. Art Monk’s rookie card is also in this set.
By 1982, the hobby world was anxiously awaiting the first card of Lawrence Taylor. Taylor revolutionized football for what he could do from his outside linebacker position and the demand for his cards was high right off the snap and have never really settled down. Even the In action card from the 1982 set is popular and those cards along with Ronnie Lott’s rookie are the keys to this set.
A rare situation indeed when defensive players carry a set. Mint, graded rookies of both players sell for $50-70 with NM/Mt ungraded examples at $15-25 and the rare ‘10’ bringing $500-$1300.
Montana’s second year card from ’82 shouldn’t be discounted among the top cards of the decade.
The following year again saw a defensive player end up as one of the key players as the Mike Singletary rookie is now the key to this set. Anyone who has ever seen his eyes at the line of scrimmage is probably still in fear of what damage he could wreak. The other key rookie is Marcus Allen who was a star running back for more than a decade. Allen and Montana even ended up as teammates on the Kansas City Chiefs during the mid-1990’s. Neither is expensive.
By 1984, the football card world was awaiting the first cards picturing the amazing 1983 quarterback class. They did not disappoint as both John Elway and Dan Marino led the pack immediately and have never let up.
Future Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson was close to them for a while but eventually fell into a solid third place among these cards.
Both the Elway and Marino cards are readily available but reasonably difficult in higher grades and do have a premium for those cards. Mint, graded examples sell for around $150 but expect to pay over $1,000 for a ‘10’ of either guy.
However, the premium for condition really hits in the 1985 set with the black borders. The key player at the start of the 1985 card season was Warren Moon and that’s still the case today. Moon, between the CFL and the NFL played more than 20 seasons and threw for more than 50,000 yards combined between the two leagues.
Expect to pay $40-50 for a ‘9’, much less for a 7 or 8. Richard Dent is another key card in ’85. Prices for rookie cards of the Bears’ defensive lineman range from a few dollars for a nice, ungraded example to over $100 for a ‘9’ and nearly $1,000 for the rare 10s that occasionally surface. The second-year cards of Elway and Marino are also among the better 80s football cards.
The 1986 Topps set is dominated by Jerry Rice. Sometimes there are discussions about who is greatest of all time at any position but no one has even come close to matching Rice at the receiver position. The Rice rookie is still incredibly desirable and is on just about any list of the best Topps football cards ever made. A PSA 10 sold in the fall of 2014 for $11,500. PSA 9 graded examples vary from $375 to about $600.
Second place in this set now goes to his former teammate Steve Young who actually appears on the 1984 Topps USFL set. Young and Rice combined for more touchdowns than any QB-receiver tandem in history. Young led the 49ers to a Super Bowl win after taking over when Montana was shipped to Kansas City. His rookie cards just a bit less than those featuring Rice but the debate continues over whether the ’84 USFL or ’86 Topps should be considered his rookie card.
It took awhile to know which 1987 Topps football card would be considered the best. As the years progressed there were times that Randall Cunningham, Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker all held the key spot but the eventual survivor in more ways than just on cardboard was the Jim Kelly card.
While Flutie, Kelly and Walker all had cards in the boxed USFL sets these were truly the first cards of these players available in packs to the general public. Today, Kelly is beloved not just for his four straight Super Bowl appearances but also for his bravery in what has been, so far, a winning fight against cancer. Showing the same time of resiliency as he did as a quarterback, his health issues have made him more beloved, if that is even possible, in upstate New York. His graded 9 rookie cards can be had for $20-30—less for ungraded examples but a 10 will run you $200 and up.
Rice’s second year card is also one to keep an eye on as time moves forward.
1988 would give us the first Bo Jackson football card. His dual playing career as well as the brief run he had as the most popular athlete in America was reflected in 1988 as his card values soared during that period.
Today, while those prices are nothing like they were at the peak of his popularity and before collectors realized just how many cards were issued, a 1988 Topps Bo Jackson football card rookie is a snapshot back in time to when Bo knew every sport. Jackson cards of all kinds are still very popular with collectors who grew up during Bo’s reign. The ’88 Topps football rookie can usually be acquired for a few dollars unless graded 10.
We conclude the 1980’s with 1989 and a new card company for football cards. Having the advantage of printing cards during a player’s rookie year plus beautiful design and a top-heavy rookie crop in which four of the top five picks were elected to Canton, the Score cards of the two Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Troy Aikman are all still watershed moments in card history today. Of those four the best is Barry Sanders, who was also named in our overall best sports cards of the 80s list.
All are reasonably prices and frankly, any of those three cards should be part of any list of the best 1980s football cards.
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