October 15, 2023

Unmasking the Aesthetic Treasures of 1980s Football Cards

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim
Shaiel Ben-Ephraim
Unmasking the Aesthetic Treasures of 1980s Football Cards

Like the 1970s, 1980s football cards were dominated by Topps. However, towards the end of the decade, Score got into the game as well. However, their 1989 Score Football design was incredibly poor. So, I wouldn’t put it on any list of the most beautiful cards. If so, the Topps designs were better. Some of them are even quite good. But there are way too many mishaps in this decade. I wouldn’t even place the best ones at the top of any best card design lists.

Therefore, very often, what sets the most attractive football cards of this decade apart are the photos. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many action shots in Topps products of the junk wax era. Instead, we have portraits, often of the players in practice. Luckily, many of them are beautifully done. But the real stars of this era are the action inserts. Some of them are among the finest cards ever made.

1984 Fred Dean Instant Replay #355

1984 Fred Dean Instant Replay #3551984 Fred Dean Instant Replay #355

A PSA 10 sold for $113.

The vast majority of football cards in the 1980s were of players in training or chilling on the bench. Which is a shame, because there were some great action photographers in those days. But luckily we had inserts like Instant Replay that specialized in those shots. They often picked dud pictures, but 1984 Topps football had a nice selection to choose from. This 1984 Fred Dean Instant Replay #355 is special, because the player who immediately catches your eye is not Fred Dean. That guy, of course, is legendary Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. Dean is the terrifying apparition making contact with Marino. You can see how this Hall of Famer made 92 sacks in an incredible career that included 2 Super Bowl wins.

1986 Topps Steve Watson #115

1986 Topps Steve Watson #1151986 Topps Steve Watson #115

A PSA 10 sold for $51.

Making this list put me in a quandary. I happen to love the 1986 Topps football design. It's probably the best of the decade. It has a tacky junk wax quality, while also somehow maintaining class. A perfect and unlikely balance. The trouble is, most of the pictures in this release are absolutely terrible. And most of the action shots that work, are on inserts that have an inferior design. The best-looking card might be the famous Jerry Rice rookie card. But that isn’t exactly affordable. However, the 1986 Topps Steve Watson #115 saved me. The beautiful picture of Steve Watson, a wide receiver, doing what people of his position do best. While Watson was a one time pro-bowler, he isn’t all that well known. But this card deserves immortality.

1985 Topps John Elway Star Set #3

1985 Topps John Elway Star Set #31985 Topps John Elway Star Set #3

A PSA 10 sold for $120.

The 1985 Topps football design was pretty horrific. They tried a horizontal design, which can work. But put big assed names on the side, with generally mediocre pictures. It was not a good look. Thankfully, some of the inserts look a lot better. For example, the 1985 Topps John Elway Star Set #3 has a great shot of the young John Elway on the go. The classic red borders and marvelous use of the NFL shield are far superior to the design on the common cards. The fact that John is a two-time Super Bowl winner, with 9 pro-bowl appearances is a great added bonus.

1980 Topps Jack Ham #10

1980 Topps Jack Ham #101980 Topps Jack Ham #10

A PSA 10 sold for $500.

Everybody loves Jack Ham. Well, some religions forbid its consumption, but that is neither here nor there. His nickname, for some reason, was "Dobre Shunka," which is "good ham" in Polish. Jack is a Hall of Famer, both for college and pros. He won 4 Super Bowls with the Steelers, and all while looking incredibly handsome. But I didn’t pick this 1980 Topps Jack Ham #10 because of his excellence. I am a sucker for a good album cover-style pensive look.

1980 Topps Randy Hughes #15

1980 Topps Randy Hughes #151980 Topps Randy Hughes #15

A PSA 9 sold for $130.

Randy was a player with a good deal of potential who never quite reached the ceiling of his capabilities due to recurring shoulder injuries. But who cares? Just look at him in the 1980 Topps Randy Hughes #15 card. He looks like the ultimate football warrior returning from battle. That helmet may as well be the severed head of his enemies. And that classic 80s sweatband completes the picture. The 1980 Topps football design isn’t doing much here, but the card pops anyway.

1982 Topps Jack Ham #210

1982 Topps Jack Ham #2101982 Topps Jack Ham #210

A PSA 10 sold for $88.

We love Jack Ham so much we put a card between two of his best-looking cards and created a ham sandwich. Yes, that joke is the main reason I put this 1982 Topps Jack Ham #210 card here. But as always, our boy Jack looks mighty fine. He was wearing that hipster beard decades before it became cool. The 1982 Topps football design is also far better than the 1980 one, so it does even more with his movie star looks.

1982 Topps John Stallworth In Action #220

1982 Topps John Stallworth In Action #2201982 Topps John Stallworth In Action #220

A PSA 10 sold for $96.

Let’s take a moment to admire this shot. John looks like he is kneeling in praise of the Lord with the ball. A dramatic action shot, though the context is lost. This is what art looks like, folks. It is a fine testament to the grace that made John Stallworth a Hall of Fame receiver and one of the best to play the game. His long career included four Super Bowl wins. But when it comes to his cards, the 1982 Topps John Stallworth In Action #220 is the cream of the crop.

1986 Topps Marino Sets Up To Go Deep #44

1986 Topps Marino Sets Up To Go Deep #441986 Topps Marino Sets Up To Go Deep #44

A PSA 10 sold for $130.

Unlike say the 1985 Topps set, the 1986 had a great design for the regular cards. Meanwhile, the design they used for the action shots was quite pedestrian. Nonetheless, they remain some of the best cards in the set. The card also shows us the kind of protection Dan enjoyed that allowed him to pass for an amazing 61,361 yards for his career. He has plenty of time to pick out his receiver here. Indeed, behind every great quarterback are so many unsung heroes.

1982 Topps Joe Montana NFC All Pro Card #488

1982 Topps Joe Montana NFC All Pro Card #4881982 Topps Joe Montana NFC All Pro Card #488

A PSA 10 sold for $600.

I am not exactly sure why this card works so well. After all, its just a dude talking on the phone. But the 1982 Topps Joe Montana NFC All Pro Card #488 card has a calmness and introspection that really hits home. Perhaps its the look of concentration on the face of “The Comeback Kid,” the greatest winner to ever take to the gridiron. The design for Topps 1982 Football was one of the better ones of the decade, and Joe just looks right under the Pro-Bowl banner. After all, he was selected eight times.

1988 Topps Vinny Testaverde #352

1988 Topps Vinny Testaverde #3521988 Topps Vinny Testaverde #352

A PSA 10 sold for $52.

Once again, Topps produced a clunker with its 1988 football cards design. But as in so many cases in this decade, we are saved by some nice looking alternate designs. In this case, the company decided to make the rookies look distinctive by giving them a different look and that Topps Super Rookie band under the picture. In the case of the 1988 Topps Vinny Testaverde #352, it has a great orange starburst thing going on. I love it. And Vinny looks like he is about to hurl that thing into someone’s face. We all loved Testaverde, a Heisman Trophy winner and All-American who never really excelled at the NFL level but was around FOREVER.

1984 Topps Joe Montana #359

1984 Topps Joe Montana #3591984 Topps Joe Montana #359

A PSA 10 sold for $967.

Probably the best-looking of all his cards, the 1984 Topps Joe Montana #359 card shows Joe trying to get rid of the ball before he gets pounded into the astro turf. He is giving that strained look he always had right before throwing a touchdown pass. An iconic moment from the guy who threw for a 127.8 passer rating, 1,142 yards and 11 touchdowns in 4 Super Bowl victories.

1981 Topps Bruce Harper Super Action #424

1981 Topps Bruce Harper Super Action #4241981 Topps Bruce Harper Super Action #424

A PSA 9 sold for $45.

The 1980s Topps cards didn’t have too many action shots, and many of the ones included were pretty mediocre. But we can’t say that about the shot in the 1981 Topps Bruce Harper Super Action #424 card, which is poetry in motion. Most of us may have forgotten about Bruce, but old-school Jets fans certainly haven’t. He is their all-time leading punt-returning record holder with 1,784 yards. This picture tells you all you need to know about how he did that.

1987 Topps Walter Payton 1000 Yards Club #7

1987 Topps Walter Payton 1000 Yards Club #71987 Topps Walter Payton 1000 Yards Club #7

A PSA 10 sold for $118.

The 1987 Topps football design is nothing short of a trainwreck. I absolutely hate everything about it. But the 1000 Yard Club insert is almost enough to save that horrible set. It combined the two greatest things in the world, great action shots and classical Greek columns. All these cards are great. I think I will order the entire set from eBay. But the Walter Payton one stands out. The shot of 1987 Topps Walter Payton 1000 Yards Club #7 is elegant and triumphant, featuring “Sweetness” at the tail end of his career, but still looking as majestic as ever ten years after he cleaned the board by winning MVP, NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and NFL Man of the Year.

1984 Topps James Lofton Instant Replay #273

1984 Topps James Lofton Instant Replay #2731984 Topps James Lofton Instant Replay #273

A PSA 10 sold for $63.

James Lofton was an incredible athlete. He won the long jump event in the 1978 NCAA Track and Field Championships. And he is no dummy either and was an Academic All-American at Stanford University. The 1984 Topps James Lofton Instant Replay #273 showcases the tremendous gift of acceleration this man had in his feet. What an action shot. Indeed, 1984 Topps has some of the best photography of the decade. And Lofton was one of the best wide receivers of his era, accumulating 14,004 yards over 764 receptions and scoring 75 touchdowns. No wonder he was enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

1989 Topps John Stephens 1000 Yards Club #4

1989 Topps John Stephens 1000 Yards Club #41989 Topps John Stephens 1000 Yards Club #4

This card is basically worthless

The 1000 Yard Club series in 1989 Topps football cards has a surprisingly psychedelic look for the decade of conspicuous consumption. But I ain’t complaining. It works. And of course, this shot is epic. It shows John in the amazing form that won him Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1988. Lets just ignore that fact that he was twice charged with rape, because that will ruin the card for us. On a brighter note, his daughter Sloane Stephens is an accomplished professional tennis player.

1989 Topps Allen Through The Line #264

1989 Topps Allen Through The Line #2641989 Topps Allen Through The Line #264

A PSA 10 sold for $70.

Whoah daddy. This is easily the best looking card of the decade. And it's the same old story, bad base card design, wonderful action shot inserts. The 1989 Topps Allen Through The Line #264 depicts Marcus doing what he does best, destroying the defense on the way to a crucial down. What I love about this wide lens shot, is the absolute determination on the running back's face. That determination got Marcus 12,243 rushing yards and 123 rushing touchdowns.

1989 Score Supplemental Bo Jackson #384S

1989 Score Supplemental Bo Jackson #384S1989 Score Supplemental Bo Jackson #384S

A PSA 10 sold for $300.

Did you expect anything else? The 1989 Score Supplemental Bo Jackson #384S is the most distinctive and memorable football card of the 1980s. And because everyone and their pet squirrel has a copy, it is worth very little. Almost nothing at lower grades. Bo looks like the Greek god that he is in this picture. And of course, whoever had the idea of making him pose in football gear with a bat was a freaking genius. There will never be another Bo Jackson, and there will never be another card this awesome.

Final Word On Affordable yet Beautiful Football Cards from the 1980s

The 1980s were a time of mediocre football card designs and bad posed shots. But it was saved by some incredibly attractive action shots, as well as Bo Jackson’s unbeatable biceps. I had to dig deep to find the beauties in this decade, because the average card looks terrible. But luckily most of the beautiful 1980s football cards are undesirable inserts. So if you want the best of this decade, there is no need to break the bank. You can settle for one of those tacky piggy banks we used to have.

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