It only makes sense to be interested in picking up some of the most valuable football cards from the 1980s. Why? The decade was an amazing era for the NFL that featured some of the greatest players to ever roam the fields. Not to mention some of the most historic moments that are still featured on highlights reels to this day.
The decade was in large parts dominated by the San Francisco 49ers who won 4 Super Bowls. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some of the decade’s most iconic players and trading cards come from players who spent their years in California.
In addition to the San Fran boys, there are also some players that went on to become revered as some of the greatest to ever play. Something that translates into BIG TIME VALUE.
Question of the day: Do you prefer the wild styles of today’s modern sports cards or the simplistic designs of the cards below?
Let us know in the comments!
8 of the Most Valuable Football Cards of the 1980s
This list is, as usual, dominated by rookie cards with every single one being from a player’s rookie year. Another sign of the era is apparent when we see the list is heavily dominated by Topps, one of the only sets available during the decade. While the list is mostly made up of that collection, there are also a couple of cards from Score that make an appearance. Enjoy!
1981 Topps Joe Montana (Check Price)
It’s no surprise that the 49ers quarterback who led them to 4 Super Bowl victories and was named Super Bowl MVP 3 times, makes this list. While Joe Montana is on the front of many cards, this is his ONLY rookie card. Something that plays a big role in the card’s value.
The card features an upper-body picture of Montana throwing the ball, in what looks like a typical practice session. This picture takes up a large portion of the card, with the border being a thin green line. Additionally, the team, name, and position are written at the bottom.
The card itself is not rare, but of the nearly 20,000 seen by PSA just 110 of them have been graded in gem mint 10 conditions. Therefore, if you want one of the grade 10s, be prepared to shell out well over $50,000.
They are a lot more common in mint 9, and this translates to a smaller value of around $2,500. As usual, there is a sliding scale with lesser graded cards, but the lowest or ungraded are accessible to any collector with values around $50.
1986 Topps Jerry Rice (Check Price)
Like the Montana card we just covered, this is Jerry Rice’s only rookie card. The man is the greatest wide receiver of all time, no questions asked. And even though he’s not a quarterback, there’s an argument to be made that he’s the greatest football player of all time, PERIOD. On top of that, Rice remains one of the biggest names ever to play in the NFL so it’s understandable why it’s on this list.
The 1986 Topps set comes with a unique, and slightly alarming, green border. The edge also contains white stripes that help to give it a football field look. Whether you like the design or not, it certainly makes it stand out from other sets of the period. The main feature of the card is again the picture of Rice which takes up the majority of the space.
On the downside, the unique border is prone to damage. This makes it even harder to find one in mint condition than even the Montana rookie. Just 58 out of over 22,000 have been graded gem mint 10 and they have a value of around $30,000. Until recently, that is. In February 2021, a PSA 10 sold at an eBay auction for a mind-blowing $125,655. Safe to say values will be higher going forward. Meanwhile, low-graded or ungraded cards can be picked up for around $30. Condition, condition, condition, CONDITION!
1986 Topps Steve Young (Check Price)
More known for his career in the ‘90s, Young shadowed Montana in the back end of the ‘80s before taking on the starting role and leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl of his own. His rookie season was actually in Tampa, hence this card features him in a Bucs uniform. It has the exact same football field design as Rice’s card and carries all the caveats that go along with it.
PSA gem mint 10 cards are very rare, with just 10 of them surfacing so far out of the 7,000 or so graded. This results in a big-time value of around $20,000 according to PSA. By the way, lasy tear one hauled in $35,000 at auction. How’s that for an aggressive bidder? In lower condition, you can buy the card for as little as $10.
1989 Score Barry Sanders (Check Price)
Another player that’s known for his electric play in the ’90s, Sanders had 10 consecutive 10,000-yard rushing seasons for the Detroit Lions before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. Although he intentionally faded from the limelight after that (much respect).
As far as this list goes, the fact that it’s not made by Topps makes it unique all on its own. However, the card features the same simple design as the Topps cards so don’t expect anything crazy. It has a headshot of Sanders with green borders, the player details at the bottom, and the year at the top.
It’s a very highly sought-after card but it seems to hold its condition a lot better. Therefore a gem mint condition pops up a lot more often than some other cards from the era. With nearly 2,000 graded in top condition by PSA, but with a valuation of around $3,000 it’s clearly one of the most valuable football cards of the 1980s. If you’re not looking to throw much money at it try grabbing a mint 9 for around $400. On the flip side, seek out a rare autographed version if you’re really looking to make a splash. It’ll cost you around $7,000 but that could be merely chump-change to what you sell it for years from now.
1984 Topps Dan Marino (Check Price)
Marino never managed to lead the Dolphins to a Super Bowl win. However, he remains a franchise legend and is regarded as one of the best QBs to ever play.
While it’s the only Marino rookie card, it was produced for the Pro Bowl so the word rookie is nowhere to be found on it, unfortunately. At any rate, the card features a headshot of Marino with a slightly annoying diagonally printed border and features. Kinda makes us dizzy, to be honest!
Looks aside, it’s a beast of a card in terms of value. Out of the 22,000 seen by PSA just over 300 were deemed to be in gem mint 10 conditions. Cards with this grade will cost you right around $8,000 with one recently going for $8,600. If you don’t have that kinda bankroll, seek out a lower condition option for as little as $100 give or take.
1984 Topps John Elway (Check Price)
John Elway made his name in the ‘80s as the highly-rated prospect that created quite the controversy in the draft. While he was embarrassed in his first Super Bowl, the quarterback shrugged it off and came back to lead the Broncos to two Super Bowl victories in the ‘90s.
Being from the same set, this card features the same diagonally printed design as the Dan Marino card we just talked about. Ugh. As far as the picture goes, we originally assumed it was taken at some sort of practice session. However, our reader Kurt points out in the comments below, Baltimore Memorial Stadium is shown in the background. And as you can tell, Elway is drenched in sweat on the sidelines meaning the photo must have been taken at the 1983 Week 2 scorcher against the Baltimore Colts. It was 90 degrees that day and Elway was overmatched in his 2nd NFL start and was pulled from the game. The Broncos ended up winning but needed the help of veteran Steve DeBerg to bail them out. Thanks, Kurt!
This is another card that does not grade well, with just 170 out of the 20,000 or so seen being deemed to be in the top condition available. Something that plays a part in recent auction prices exceeding $15,000 for a PSA 10. Just like all the others, the value has a wide margin with lesser copies sitting under $100.
1989 Score Troy Aikman (Check Price)
Aikman is a Dallas Cowboys legend. He and Emmitt along with Jimmy Johson pulled a hapless Cowboys team out of the gutter and restored it to greatness. How great? The team won 3 Super Bowls in the 90s and was one of the last great dynasties.
The card design is the exact same as the Barry Sanders Score rookie card, with the green outlining and a headshot of Aikman on the practice field. As usual with the 1989 Score set, the card grades very well. This means the value in PSA 10 is a comparatively low $1,500 to $2,000. Meanwhile, PSA mint 9 or BGS 9.5 graded cards can be picked up for just a few hundred bucks..
1982 Topps Lawrence Taylor (Check Price)
The only defensive player on this list, and possibly the greatest defensive player ever to grace the NFL.
As far as looks go, the card has a unique design that features Taylor preparing for action while doing his best impression of “The Thinker“. While he may come off as a sophisticated fellow in this photo, once he’s done with his pondering you can rest assured that he’ll be more than ready to wreak havoc on any and all players that dare to even LOOK in his direction. Yes, Tayor played the game like an absolute MADMAN. Probably why he’s such a polarizing figure. Some seem to love it while his no holds barred attitude while some prefer a more traditional style. At any rate, the border is in the typical Topps style format. Very simple and perfectly understated.
This seems to be a fairly rare card with just 600 being seen by PSA. Additionally, only 72 have received a gem mint 10 condition. Value for one of the PSA 10s? Somewhere around or above $15,000. Likewise, a BGS PRISTINE condition 10 is capable of creating similar suction.
Looking for something more modern? Check out what the 2020 Panini Prizm Football set has to offer!
Most Valuable Football Cards of the 1980s Honorable Mentions
1989 Emmitt Smith Smokey (Check Price)
Now we all know that Emmit Smith’s rookie year wasn’t until 1990. HOWEVER, he did have an obscure card released in 1989 that we need to bring attention to. The 1989 Smokey card features Emmit back from his days in the Flordia Gator’s backfield. If you’re lucky enough to have one you’re holding a $4,000 to $5,000 dollar bill in your hand. If it’s a PSA grade 10 that is. Almost as valuable as his most popular Score rookie card from 1990 that’s coming next!
From the back of the card: “Enters the 1989 season as one of college football’s marquee players and a prominent Heisman Trophy candidate. The Junior has already rushed for 2,329 yards and hold 17 Florida single-season records and five game records.”
By the way, he didn’t really come close to winning the Heisman that year with only a 7th place finish. The winner? Andre Trevor Ware. But that’s a topic for another day!
1990 Score Emmitt Smith (Check Price)
As we just said, this one now appears to be the most valuable Emmitt Smith card. It is his TRUE rookie card after all. While not a card from the 1980s, we threw it on the list because we couldn’t bring ourselves to cover Emmitt Smith cards without including this one. Values at the moment are sitting around the $5,000 to $6,000 range for the max grade.
Related content: Check out how these cards compare to the most valuable baseball cards from the 1980s and 1990s!
How the Most Valuable Football Cards of the 1980s Compare to 2020 Cards
If you ever needed confirmation that the 1980s were a simpler time, this is certainly it. There were no flashy refractors, countless parallels, or rare inserts. Just a bunch of simply designed base cards. This is probably the last decade where this rings true. Therefore, these cards have a little extra charm if you’re asking us.
While you may like the simple design, the cards are far more common than some of the most valuable football cards you see today. Therefore, they can’t hold a candle to some of the obscene values we see going into 2021. However, as you can see, there is quite a market for mint condition rookie cards of NFL legends that started their careers in this decade. So next time you’re about to unload on some Gold Refractor Purple Twist Shattered Ice Teal Lime Neon Prizm card from the modern era, why not consider taking a step back to consider one of these classic beauties!
Most Valuable Football Cards of the 1980s Investment Strategy
Short (Less than 1 year)
When you invest in a player that no longers play the game, you’re only concern is the health of the overall market. That and the popularity of the sport. We love the idea of a short-term play if you buy in the offseason. However, you could very well be passing up on bigger profits down the road if you decide on a quick flip. 7/10
Medium (1 to 5 years)
The overall market has been more than healthy. To say the least. Thus, we’d consider a medium-length investment to be a much wiser option than a short-term play. Consider stashing one for a couple of years and see where the market is. If you love the prices you’re seeing? Sell! If not, go long. 9/10
Long (5 years plus)
The most valuable football cards of the 1980s feature players that are absolute legends. Translation: they ain’t going nowhere. Additionally, the cards we just showed you tend to be incredibly popular amongst collectors. How about that for demand? These two factors should act to push up the valuations along for years to come. 10/10
More classic football card reviews: