In the years that I worked in the sports card industry developing products and marketing plans for various manufacturers, there were days in which I felt I was in the right place at the right place at the right time. There were also days when I was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And then there was the perfect storm.
He was the perfect player with the perfect background busting onto the NFL’s perfect stage at the perfect time.
I was working at Collector’s Edge that year. Heading to a small and flexible company where I was given carte blanche to develop products was much different than my previous job as developing products as a brand manager at Pinnacle. At Pinnacle, a great idea led to a few months of executive-level meetings in the board rooms, extensive cost analysis meetings, and six months later, the idea might come to fruition.
At Collector’s Edge, we didn’t have that problem. If we saw something that made sense, we made it happen.
In 1999, we made it happen by getting the red-hot St. Louis Rams’ starting quarterback Kurt Warner into our late season football card products. Looking back at that year, I don’t think Pinnacle could have pulled off getting him into a set if they were still in business in 1999. Don’t get me wrong. Pinnacle made amazing products and had extremely talented people. But things moved slowly because of the size of the company and how far things were done in advance.
Manning And Leaf Vs. Warner
If you look back at the football card markets in 1998 and 1999, the market drivers were at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
And you have to understand that for the football card companies, the majority of their products are conceptualized and pre-sold before the season starts.
If you worked for a manufacturer or distributor or were a shop owner or show dealer in 1998, chances are that Peyton Manning drove sales for you. If you were a collector speculating on Ryan Leaf, it was a different story. There is no way either could live up to the massive hype.
So while Manning and Leaf had the impossible task of meeting the hobby’s expectations, Kurt Warner had no expectations. Most had never heard of him.
Give credit to Mike Cramer at Pacific for having the first Kurt Warner card out on the market, and the only Warner rookie card released before the 1999 season started. Card #343 features Warner on a dual card with receiver Tony Horne. One of the first chats I had with Mike when I went to work for him in 2000 was about the Warner card. He told me that Warner had played one game for the Rams in 1998 and that he had never had a card. When there was a quarterback who had never had a card, Pacific was the perfect set to add a player like Warner. A month into the 1999 season, every case, box and pack and card with Warner and Horne on it was long gone.
Warner Takes Over
When I got to Collector’s Edge, my job was to develop all of our products, do the checklists, write the card backs, and develop the marketing, advertising and communication plans. Because I had a journalism and photography background, I actually shot a lot of the photos on Collector’s Edge cards from 1998-2000. In other words, I was doing a job that was the equivalent of what 20-30 people at Pinnacle were doing, but I was not overworked.
I was sitting at my desk at home while watching Week 1 of the 1999 season. The St. Louis Rams were a team to watch that year. We had heavily featured Rams rookie receiver Torry Holt in our sets to that point. But quarterback Trent Green went down with an injury. Warner, a journeyman at best to that point, not only got his chance to play in Week 1, but he blew it up. He passed for 309 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-10 win against the Ravens.
The next day, I talked to Collector’s Edge President Alan Lewis and our VP Sales, Ted Kreder. I told them we had to get Kurt Warner in a set ASAP. The Rams were a great team, and if he could step in and play like that, collectors were going to go nuts for him.
Through his first four games, Warner had three 300-yard passing games and had thrown for 14 touchdowns. As each day went by, distributors and hobby shop owners were pressing Ted. I think he started ever conversation with the same question. “How soon can we get Kurt Warner in a set?”
One of the advantages about being at Collector’s Edge is that we were always producing special cards for Shop At Home. Maybe they were special commemorative cards or cards that would be autographed. I was relentlessly in Alan’s face about getting Kurt Warner on a card – not in a bad way. Alan admittedly was not a big football fan and had never been a collector. He had a printing and graphics background and had a very strong technical, financial and organizational grasp on our business. He brought me in for reasons like this – to get Kurt Warner on a football card before anyone else did.
The first set we had coming out after the start of the season was 1999 Collector’s Edge First Place. Alan had a form going to press and we were able to quickly secure a photo and get him on a card as an added player to the set. The card was limited to 500 copies, and they were hand-numbered on the card back. I’m not sure which one of the three of us had the idea to number them, but we all that it was a great idea. Ted and I were big proponents of serial-numbering before it was really a thing. I think Alan hand-numbered the cards. It clearly wasn’t me – the cards would have looked like a pharmacist had written on them.
With Warner’s inclusion and the buzz of that card, First Place Football took off. Sales in the Hobby exploded. Vintage Sports Cards, the company that distributed cards to Target stores, increased their order. I alternated weeks between our Collector’s Edge office in Denver and Shop at Home in Nashville back then, and I sat down with our on-air guy Don West to come up with an offer for First Place. The offer included a box of First Place and a Peyton Manning autographed card, along with a box of a previously-released product for $99.
The ever enthusiastic Don was at his best that night, and the result was the best sales result a Collector’s Edge offering had ever had on Shop At Home. Today, you can still own boxes of 1999 Collector’s Edge First Place for less than $70.
The next football set with a Warner card was Odyssey. It was a tiered product, with the base set divided into First, second, Third and Fourth Quarter Subsets. The First Quarter cards were the commons, and each other subset was shortprinted, with the Fourth Quarter cards being the most rare.
Our best product of 1999 was Masters Football. One of my products at Pinnacle was Totally Certified, which was very successful. It was a unique product with every card serial-numbered. When Ted and I went over our products at Collector’s Edge, we told Alan we wanted to come up with something that was structured like Totally Certified.
The base cards of Masters were serial-numbered out of 5,000, but some of the rookies were shortprinted to 2,000. There were also parallels in this set, with HoloSilver numbered to 3,500, Galvanized numbered to 1,000, and HoloGold numbered to 25. Masters also included 500 hand-numbered autographed Kurt Warner cards. It was one of the most successful products Collector’s Edge ever had. You can find them on eBay these days, but they’re not all that plentiful.
There were only 14 rookie cards of Kurt Warner made in 1999, and Collector’s Edge made three of them. Topps and Upper Deck had to scramble to put Warner in an end-of-season product. But when you look at the First Place and Masters Warner cards, the only Warner rookie card with more clout is the Playoff Contenders Kurt Warner Autographed RC, with a print run 1,825 copies.
Alan and I went to the Super Bowl in Atlanta that year. We sat 35 rows up, right on the goal line where Kevin Dyson was stopped a yard short on the last play of the game. Kurt Warner had the game of his life, passing for a Super Bowl record 414 yards and two touchdowns as the Rams won.
After Warner aired one out to Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown with about two minutes left in the game, I remember making a comment to Alan.
“I hope you realize that we are here watching what is probably the greatest Super Bowl ever played.”
He marinated the comment for a minute and said, “You really think so?”
“Without a doubt,” I said, too excited to hide my Canadian accent with that phrase.
Three months later, I was at the 2000 NFL Players Inc Rookie Premier photo shoot in Orlando. Alan told me to stick around for a few extra days with my family because the annual Pop Warner Football Banquet was there. We were a Pop Warner sponsor, and Alan wanted me to say a few words on behalf of the company to the crowd “of a couple hundred or so football coaches with mustard stains on their t-shirts.”
I underestimated the crowd, as I raced from the water park to get dressed into my wrinkled shirt and shoes that weren’t shined. I hadn’t shaved and I smelled like Typhoon Lagoon.
When I arrived, I was invited into the VIP room. I joined Dick Vermeil and his wife, Drew Bledsoe’s dad, Lynn Swann, Paula Abdul, Governor Jeb Bush, and a few other famous football people. I sat beside Dick Vermeil during dinner and had an incredible chat with him. We talked about Kurt Warner, and he was interested to learn of the impact he had on the sports card industry.
He gave me some insight on Warner.
“He would never have made it to the NFL if he had not played in the Arena Football League,” Vermeil told me. “He learned to make certain reads and he became extremely good at throwing crossing routes, which was a big part of our offense.”
Warner’s life is now a movie, although it’s more of a love story than a football movie.
Over the last 22 years, the hobby has never seen a rookie who went from being a complete unknown to turning the NFL and the sports card industry upside down the way Kurt Warner did. It probably won’t happen again.
It’s a shame. Because the hobby loves an underdog.