For football fans, the news of the return of the United States Football League in the spring of 2022 was met with mixed reaction.
For football card collectors, however, it was much more intriguing.
The original league brings back memories of the 1980s, an era of astroturf, giant shoulder pads, and loosely fit mesh jerseys along with the USFL’s two football card sets, which carry the first pro football cards for some all-time greats.
The hobby was steadily growing throughout the 1980s, but it was still a few years from exploding. Topps was producing NFL cards, and there were a number of regional food and promotional sets being produced across the U.S. Neatly tucked into the middle of the decade were a pair of 132-card boxed sets of USFL cards.
The announcement of the USFL’s return immediately spiked interest and activity for some of the marquee cards in the set, particularly the 1984 Steve Young card. The cards looked very much like Topps football cards of the day, with a lot of cropped head shots taken while players were on or near the bench.
While the sets are loaded with cards featuring future NFL stars and collegiate legends, they also forced the hobby to create a clear definition of what constitutes a true rookie card. This was, after all, a major professional football league.
Or was it?
Would the cards Reggie White, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker and the rest of the young stars who jumped to the league out of college be considered rookie cards? Or would they get the “XRC” designation reserved for pre-rookie cards?
At the time, it’s important to remember that monthly price guide magazines like Beckett Football had not yet emerged to be the source for questions or debates like this. The general consensus was that a rookie card had to come in a set that was licensed by both the league and the players, and was available in packs. A card of a player who had not yet reached the top professional league but was included in a subset within a fully licensed set sold in packs was deemed to be a rookie card. However, boxed sets like the end-of-year Topps Rookie and Traded Baseball sets were considered pre-rookie cards, as they were not sold in packs.
Two Leagues In One Set
Some interesting precedent had already been set by rival leagues that popped up in the past. In its 1960s football card sets, Topps included AFL and NFL cards in the same sets. The famous 1965 Topps Joe Namath “tall boy” rookie card was among the marquee rookie cards of AFL players. The photo on the front of the Namath card was taken by Bob Olen, a well-known New York sports photographer for the Jets and Yankees, at Lennox Hill Hospital.
Namath was recovering from knee surgery and had been in bed for more than a week. The Jets’ PR Director showed up at the hospital with a jersey, shoulder pads and a football. Namath was able to put on the shoulder pads and jersey, and then get out of bed. He was leaning against a wall for the photo, which is why the photo is cropped the way it is.
In the 1970s, Topps again mixed two leagues into one set. Players from the ABA appeared in its basketball sets. Julius Erving’s rookie card with the Virginia Squires is the most sought after ABA card. The leagues merged in 1976.
Cards of WHA players appeared in the NHL sets produced by Topps (US) and O-Pee-Chee (Canada) in the early 1970s. Players who did not join the league until its final years, particularly Wayne Gretzky, did not get official rookie cards until the 1979-80 season, after the NHL absorbed the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers.
Hockey star Eric Lindros, meanwhile, appears in the 1990 Score Rookie and Traded Baseball boxed sets, taking batting practice on the field at Rogers Centre (then SkyDome) wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform. Because it was in a boxed set, this card has an XRC designation.
Fun While it Lasted
The USFL’s demise in the 1980s was predictable and could be seen coming like a freight train on a prairie track. The league wanted star power, and that forced the owners to shell out big dollars. BYU’s Young had signed the famous $40 million contract, which was actually an annuity of $40 million payable over 43 years. Herschel Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals for big money. Jim Kelly signed with the Houston Gamblers out of college and became the top quarterback in the league. Reggie White signed with Memphis. Anthony Carter and Marcus Dupree joined the league. Some NFL players, like quarterback Brian Sipe, jumped aboard. The following year, Doug Flutie of Boston College “Hail Mary” fame, signed with the Generals.
The league did develop some stars who were not college superstars. Quarterback Bobby Hebert and running back Maurice Carthon became NFL stars when the USFL collapsed.
One of the league’s owners, Donald Trump, saw the end game as the league being a merger with the NFL. This was the logic behind moving the league to the fall: to trigger a merger with the NFL. That move killed USFL franchises that played in NFL cities, and the teams fell like dominoes.
Defunct or Functioning?
So will the new USFL draw some star power? Or will it follow in the footsteps of the XFL and the AAFL?
Few remember, but the World League of American Football actually had a bigger presence in the hobby than the USFL did at the time of the card product releases. Pro Set produced WLAF cards, with one of the most notable cards being of quarterback Jason Garrett.
The original XFL left us the memories of Rod Smart, who is known for his nickname “He Hate Me.” Smart played in the CFL with Edmonton and bounced around the NFL, including a three-year stop with the Carolina Panthers. Vince McMahon’s XFL resurrection had a chance, but the league was one of the first corporate casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AAFL, meanwhile, collapsed before they got through a season (but did have a deal with Topps for a trading card product that was released).
The USFL has a chance, though. The name alone gives it stronger branding and legitimacy. They will need to find some good quarterbacks and offensive linemen, but they are out there. They may not be able to steal a bunch of talent from the NFL like they did in the 1980s, but they will likely snare at least some recognizable players.
As for the hobby, this league is ripe for the picking. With Panini holding the NFL license, it might be a nice license for Upper Deck or Topps to go after. What is really intriguing about the licensing possibilities is that the league is entering the sports landscape at the same time that NFT’s are ready to explode.
And we are guessing they would be pre-rookie NFT’s, if there is such a thing.