It’s hard to believe the USFL has been gone for 35 years. As the first league to challenge the NFL since the American Football League took the field in 1960, the USFL was innovative. The league introduced ideas that are now common in the NFL — the 2-point conversation, coaches’ challenges and the salary cap.
The USFL also holds a soft spot for football card collectors. The Topps 1984 USFL set has held its value through the years and contains rookie cards of eventual Hall of Famers like Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White.
In fact, 1984 was a very good year for Topps football cards. It’s 1984 NFL set is also highly coveted, with rookies of Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Eric Dickerson in the 396-card mix.
The 1984 USFL set was considerably smaller at 132 cards, printed on white cardboard stock and sold as a complete boxed set. Cards were numbered alphabetically by city name and by the player’s last name.
To realize the significance of the set, a look back at the USFL is a must.
Founded as a spring league in 1983, the league created an instant buzz when it went against the grain and signed Herschel Walker, college football’s marquee player who was still an underclassman at the University of Georgia. The league put competitive teams on the field thanks to the deep pockets of Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett, and by a young millionaire who owned the New Jersey Generals — a guy named Donald Trump.
With his wallet already opened to sign Walker, Trump attempted to lure the NFL’s most visible coach — Don Shula — from the Miami Dolphins with cash and stock options. It didn’t happen, but it gave the league some much-needed ink in the newspapers.
The USFL’s first three seasons had varying degrees of success but had lost $163 million before it “shot itself in the foot,” according to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. That’s when the USFL decided to abandon spring games after the 1985 season and go head to head against the NFL. That idea, pushed by Trump, led to an antitrust suit the USFL won, but actually lost. The league was awarded $1 in damages, which, when trebled and factored in with interest, amounted to $3.76.
By then, the league had folded.
Still, the USFL debut card set put out by Topps in 1984 crackled with big names.
The card fronts identify the set as the “Premier USFL edition,” dominated by the distinctive red, white and blue USFL logo across the top of the card. There is a player photo, and a player helmet is situated at the bottom left-hand side of the card. To the left of the helmet, the team name is featured in large red block letters against a yellow background, with the player’s name and position directly underneath in smaller type.
There is a ribbon-like border that frame’s the player’s photo.
The card backs use color schemes that are dominated by white, pink and powder blue. The player’s name is in white letters against a pink background, and his statistics — college or pro — are set in pink type against a white background. A highlight is also included, with pink lettering against a powder blue background.
At the bottom is a useful fact — or, as the Topps cleverly decided, “USeFuL” facts. The lettering is also pink against a powder blue background.
The key cards in the set are those of Kelly (No. 36), Young (No. 52), White (No. 58) and Walker (No. 74). First-year players of note include Ricky Sanders (No. 38), Vaughan Johnson (No. 42), Anthony Carter (No. 59), Bobby Hebert (No. 62) and speedster Marcus Dupree (No. 76).
Other familiar names include Greg Landry (No. 4), Joe Cribbs (No. 12), Scott Norwood (No. 14), Brian Sipe (No. 73), Doug Williams (No. 96) and Sean Landeta (No. 102).
Even though the 1984 USFL cards were issued as a complete set, some of the cards suffered from poor centering. A properly centered Young card is particularly difficult to find, for example. Of the more than 2,600 Young cards submitted to PSA for grading, only 29 are PSA 10s; there are, however, 442 PSA 9 versions. An SGC 10 recently sold for $2,300. PSA 9s typically run $400-$450.
There are fewer Walker cards that have been submitted, partially because his pro career never had the luster of his collegiate days. Of the 1,439 submissions, 33 are Gem Mint.
Nearly 2,200 Kelly cards have been sent to PSA, and 42 have attained gem mint status. There are 645 PSA 9 cards and 946 PSA 8s.
But the scarcest gem mint card of the USFL notables belongs to White, as only seven out of 1,899 submissions have earned a PSA 10 designation. They’ve sold for thousands of dollars on the rare occasion they’ve popped up in the market.
Another condition issue comes from occasional flaking of the pink backgrounds on the card reverse.
Complete boxed sets are not all that common since so many have been broken in order to grade the key cads. Cases sold to dealers back in 1984 held 100 sets. At last year’s National Sports Collectors Convention, Baseball Card Exchange was able to buy–and sell–a rare surviving full case.
You can check out sets, partial sets and singles on eBay here.
The USFL was a fleeting footnote in pro football history. But for collectors, Topps’ 1984 USFL set holds some pretty great memories.