The 1980s are associated with the junk wax cards era. It was a time when cards were printed plentifully, and people kept all their rookie cards. Unfortunately, that is not a recipe for great value. So, you may think that football cards from the 1980s are not worth a lot. And generally, you would be correct.
However, there is more to it. First, the card companies printed fewer football cards than their baseball card equivalents. That has helped many uphold their values. Second, the early 1980s pre-dated the junk wax era of football cards. They are late vintage cards and, therefore, have more scarcity and value. Finally, some releases were printed only a few times, even in those years of plenty. Therefore, there is value to be found in these cards.
But more importantly, the 1980s was one of the great football decades. Just think of the legends that bestrode the Gridiron in that era of titans. Lawrence Taylor is the greatest defensive player of all time. Joe Montana is the comeback kid. Bo Jackson is arguably the most outstanding athlete in American history. And Jerry Rice is easily the best wide receiver to catch a pigskin. Listen, youngsters, back then, the game was played right.
Finally, the designs for 1980s football cards were arguably the best of any major sport in the decade. There were fewer sets, so the card companies got less adventurous. The result was some pretty classy designs showcasing all-time legends. And that is why we absolutely love 1980s football cards. Luckily, the markets are fans of many of them as well.
1989 Score Supplemental Bo Jackson Rookie Card #384S
A PSA 10 sold for $1,036.
The 1989 Score Supplemental Bo Jackso #384S is one of the most iconic cards ever made. People really do overuse that term nowadays, but this one deserves it. It is stunning, Bo looks like a Greek god and is wearing gear from two sports he excels at. Words fail me. Unfortunately, this card is very common and everyone has it. So it will never get the price it deserves.
1989 Pro Set Promos #1989 Santa Claus
A PSA 10 sold for $1,752.
Is it the most fantastic card of the 1980s or the dumbest card? I pick the latter. But remember today, we have a million cool inserts in our products and yawn when we pull one. But in 1989, most products had few oddity or creative cards. So bored collectors were delighted to see a cute hand-painted picture of Santa collecting 1989 Pro Set football cards. And it certainly helped that brand become a nostalgic favorite.
There is an argument for picking these cards up. They are rare, especially by the standards of the time. There are only 302 graded copies of these cards. However, a high proportion is PSA 10s (almost 90), which still isn’t too much. Therefore, values may go up.
1989 Score Deion Sanders Rookie Card #246
A PSA sold for $1,650.
Deion Sanders has been making a lot of headlines as a coach recently. That can only be good for the long-term value of his cards. And that is good because the 1989 Score Deion Sanders Rookie Card #246 will not gain weight with its attractiveness. Sorry, but these 1989 Score football cards combine a substandard design with third-rate shots of players looking uncomfortable. But people love them. Go figure.
Now, Deion is not even the most prestigious Sanders in this release. No, Bernie is not on the 1989 Score Checklist. But the pop numbers for this one are lower, at under 9,000, and people are talking about him again. This may be an excellent time to buy in.
1988 Topps Bo Jackson Rookie Card #327
A PSA 10 sold for $3,349.
If people had any taste, the Bo Jackson football cards would have the highest prices of any item here. The man was a star in two professional sports simultaneously. And you know this dude could have picked any athletic event on earth and dominated it. What I love about the 1988 Topps Bo Jackson Rookie Card #327 card is that it looks like he is taking a row in the local pond. Sadly, that is an optical illusion. There are 563 PSA 10s, so values will probably not go up too much.
1983 Topps #294 Marcus Allen RC
A PSA 10 sold for $4,175.
There may never have been a better short-yard runner than Marcus Allen. And he left it all on the field in Super Bowl XVIII when he rushed for 191 yards and made that 74-yard touchdown run. The ultimate running play. And let's take a minute to admire the 1983 Topps Marcus Allen Rookie Card #294. Marcus looks like the biggest badass ever. Maybe because he is.
1982 Topps Ronnie Lott Rookie Card #486
A PSA 10 sold for $4,272.
In the 1980s defensive players mattered in the hobby. People understood football in the good old days, and we had all-time greats like Ronnie Lot who we loved a lot. Sorry. How good was he? A lot of good. Ok, I will stop. He was on the 1980s AND 1990s all-decade team, was a 10 time Pro-Bowl selection and four-time Super Bowl Winner. And in the 1982 Topps Ronnie Lott Rookie Card #486 picture, the player looks like he is trying to incapacitate opponents with his mind.
1989 Emmitt Smith Smokey Florida Gators
A PSA 10 sold for $6,300.
Emmitt Smith is one of the great players of the 90s and the all-time rush leader. But we do have this college era card, that goes for more than most people’s actual rookie cards. Because Smith rolls like that. The 1989 Emmitt Smith Smokey Florida Gators also has Smoky the bear on it, which is always a plus.
1989 Score Troy Aikman Rookie Card #270
A PSA 10 sold for $6,500.
Imagine paying $6,500 for a Score football card from the 1980s? This one may be worth it as one of the big rookie cards of the 1980s. The design for these cards is questionable, but that is a pretty great shot of Troy Aikman. He may look a bit old for his age in this snap. But the joke is on you because it's now 2023, and he looks exactly the same. How do you look now? Thought so.
Troy is undoubtedly a fabulous player. A three-time Super Bowl winner and Hall of Famer. However, the value of this 1989 Score Troy Aikman Rookie Card #270 is challenged by its population count. There are over 16,000 copies of this card. These are small numbers by junk wax standards. But there are 1,642 PSA 10s, which is a considerable number. These cards age well!
1989 Score Barry Sanders Rookie Card #257
A PSA 10 sold for $8,117.
In the olden days, the NFL only allowed card companies to print rookie cards in the players' second year. Yes, ridiculous. But 1989 Score was one of the first releases to go against this trend. The company was also a brand-spanking new entity in the hobby. Therefore, there was great excitement surrounding this card. Indeed, Barry was such a highly-rated rookie that some argue this card brought football cards out of the shade of their baseball cousins to the higher status they have today.
Regarding design, the 1989 Score Barry Sanders Rookie Card #257 won’t be winning any awards. The unpleasant shade of green, the uncomfortable smile of the virtuoso running back, and the ugly lettering are nothing to write home about. But this is a Score card after all.
1984 Topps #63 John Elway RC
A PSA 10 sold for $6,700.
The 1984 Topps design was one of the better ones of the decade. That is not a particularly high bar, but on the 1984 Topps John Elway Rookie Card #63, they really created an almost perfect card. The lettering and all that are glorious. But it's the picture that really kills it. Elway looks like the villain jock in every high school movie ever made. The one who would lose the girl to the nerd with the heart of gold. But while in the movies, he would get his comeuppance, in reality, Elway got 2 Super Bowl rings and 9 Pro-Bowl appearances.
1984 Dan Marino Rookie Card Topps #123
A PSA 10 sold for $9,000.
Does Dan Marino look like a potato in his rookie card? Yes. Does he look like a particularly delicious potato? Also no. Having said that, the 1984 Dan Marino Rookie Card Topps #123 is one of the great football cards of the 1980s. Marino was one of the most gifted passers to play the game. And we absolutely refuse to mention that he did not win a ring because that would be a cliche. It's worth noting that there is another Marino card in this release, the more scarce #124 replay card. There are 26,455 copies of #123 and 168 of #124. But this is a better-known card, and it's also worth a lot more. But you have to wonder if people will realize the population count at any point.
1982 Topps Lawrence Taylor Rookie Card #434
A PSA 10 sold for $17,050.
It's easily the most essential card of a defensive player ever issued. Yes, I am a Giants fan, but we can all agree on that. Indeed, he is the last defensive player to win MVP and one of only two in history. The 1982 Topps Lawrence Taylor Rookie Card #434 is an absolute beauty. The formidable profile of LT is somehow just as imposing sitting on the bench as this absolute monster was on the gridiron.
There are two Lawrence Taylor cards in the 1982 Topps football cards set. This one has 7,910 copies and 183 PSA 10s, while the 1982 Topps Stickers #144 Lawrence Taylor In Action card has far fewer copies. Nonetheless, it is worth a fraction of the #434.
1986 Topps Steve Young Rookie Card #374
A PSA 10 sold for $35,302.
In the same release, the iconic Jerry Rice card overshadows the 1986 Topps Steve Young Rookie Card #374. But as you can see, it goes for a nice price as well. To me, the 1986 Topps Football design is the ultimate junk wax triumph, and this card is no exception. So what if Steve looks like he just realized he got a hernia? We are still talking about a three-time Super Bowl winner and two-time MVP.
The pop numbers for this card are striking. It has a respectable amount of submissions at 11,270. But only one out of a thousand (!!!) is a PSA 10. So, there is a lot of scope for the value of this card to grow.
1981 Topps Joe Montana Rookie Card #216
A PSA 10 sold for $87,330.
Look at that sum. Every kid in 1981 knew that “The Comeback Kid” was the one you wanted to pull and save. The simple design adds to the eternal appeal of this card. Despite being a prominent keeper, the 1981 Topps Joe Montana Rookie Card #216 is worth a fortune. Today few people consider “Joe Cool” the greatest quarterback of all time-time. We live in the post-Tom Brady era after all. But his incredible record in the Super Bowl, 4-0 for his career tells quite the story. Not coincidentally, Joe is also the all-time Super Bowl leader with a pass rating of 127.8 and the most passes without an interception (122!). No wonder Joe Montana has three Super Bowl MVPs.
The population of this card is exceedingly high, because everyone and their pet canary saved a copy. Therefore, PSA has 24,873 copies on record. However, in the usual manner of creating artificial scarcity, there are only 111 PSA 10s among that group. Getting one for under $50,000 is impossible. Since Montana embodies 1980s football and the platonic ideal of the quarterback, this card will always be worth a good deal.
1986 Topps Jerry Rice Rookie Card #161
A PSA 10 sold for $125,665.
I think we can all agree that Jerry Rice is the best offensive player of the 1980s and one of the greatest ever. And the 1986 Topps design has that somewhat cheap junk wax look while remaining undeniably appealing. But perhaps the best thing about the 1986 Topps Jerry Rice Rookie Card #161 is the shot. It captures that familiar look Rice would get before he torched your vulnerable secondary with a deadly run and catch.
The pop count for this card also stands out. It has the most copies of any football card I’ve seen. Those are junk wax superstar numbers at 31,966. However, a mere 61 of these are PSA 10s.
Final Word On The 15 Most Valuable Football Cards from the 1980s
There is a surprising amount of value in 1980s football cards. There were so many iconic players and print runs were significantly lower. But most importantly, look at how beautiful these cards are. The 1980s - a delightful decade for the football collector of discerning taste.