Best ’80s Football Cards: Top 5 Collectibles, According To Sports Experts

Have you rummaged through your attic lately and stumbled across the football cards you collected while growing up? Don’t throw them away! Those pieces of cardboard from the 1980s might be worth something! Before Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Patrick Mahomes, there was Joe Montana, John Elway, and Dan Marino. Just because the bigger money might be more in the modern-card era, don’t sleep on the rookie Hall-of-Famers from the 1980s. Because of that, StudyFinds has whittled down a list of the best ’80s football cards.

Football is not only fun for card collectors, it’s become a billion-dollar industry for betting. Millions of Americans don’t need to go to Las Vegas and place a bet at a casino as they can just do it on their phone. Due to that, a recent study reveals that 40 percent of bettors have never been in an actual casino. Luckily, you don’t need to go to a casino to be involved in the world of trading football cards.

Tips for determining the value of football cards:

  • Look for rookie cards: Rookie cards are always in high demand, and rookie cards of star players are especially valuable. Some of the most valuable football rookie cards from the 1980s include Dan Marino, Joe Montana, and Lawrence Taylor.
  • Check for limited edition sets: There were a number of limited edition football card sets released in the 1980s, such as Fleer Star Stickers. Cards from these sets are generally more valuable than cards from base sets.
  • Look for insert cards: Insert cards are special cards that are inserted into packs of base cards in limited quantities. Some of the most valuable insert cards from the 1980s include Fleer Stickers and Topps Tiffany cards.
  • Check for autograph cards: Autograph cards are cards that have been signed by the player featured on the card. Autograph cards of legendary players are always valuable, but autograph cards of lesser-known players can also be valuable if the card is in good condition and the autograph is authentic.
  • Look for cards in high demand: Some of the most popular football cards from the 1980s include cards of Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Walter Payton, and Jerry Rice. These players are all considered to be all-time greats, so their cards are always in high demand.

Are you ready to go through your football collection to find some hidden gems? Thanks to online experts, we have listed the top five best ’80s football cards to collect. Did we miss one? Let us know in the comments below!

Football player holding his helmet
Football player holding his helmet (Photo by wavebreakmedia on Shutterstock)

The List: Best ’80s Football Cards, According to Experts


1. 1981 Topps Joe Montana Rookie Card

Before Tom Brady there was Joe Montana. “Joe Cool” led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles during his illustrious career, capturing three Super Bowl MVPs in the process. It’s no surprise that Montana’s 1981 Topps rookie card would top the list as the best football card of the ’80s. “The first card of the legendary 49ers quarterback consistently commands more than any other 1980s gridiron rookie. Of the 12,600 submitted to PSA for authentication and grading, just 76 have been deemed PSA-10s as of December 2014. Print defects and poor centering sometimes plague this card,” writes PSA. “The price of this card in PSA-10 has gone up significantly. While it was possible to trade in the $5000 range at one time, a PSA-10 Montana sold for $14,954 in December of 2014.”

1981 Topps #216 Joe Montana Rookie Card BGS BCCG 9 Near Mint+
1981 Topps #216 Joe Montana Rookie Card BGS BCCG 9 Near Mint+

“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,” notes Bargain Bunch. “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.”

Sports Collectors Daily calls Montana’s rookie card the key to the 1981 Topps football set. “Again, Topps caught a break as his rookie card actually appeared a couple of years after he was drafted and then during that season he lead the 49ers to their first of four Super Bowl wins in nine seasons. Although there are plenty of Montana rookies available (as there are with almost all 1980s football cards), he will always be in demand as one of the most popular and productive quarterbacks of all-time.”

2. 1986 Topps Jerry Rice Rookie Card

Montana wouldn’t have been as phenomenal as he was without the greatest wide receiver of all time in Jerry Rice. In 77 games, the two connected for 77 touchdowns. Rice currently holds the NFL record of most touchdowns with 208. That’s a big reason why his 1986 Topps rookie cards is a must for collectors. “The green and white striped border of the 1986 Topps card stands out, and makes for a recognizable card, but it’s another which is hard to find in top condition, because it’s so prone to damage,” writes Sports Card Specialist.

1986 Topps #161 Jerry Rice Rookie Card BGS BCCG 9 Near Mint+
1986 Topps #161 Jerry Rice Rookie Card BGS BCCG 9 Near Mint+

“His lone rookie card is in the 1986 Topps set, and high-grade copies are extremely difficult to find. There have been a whopping 24,552 copies of the card submitted to PSA for grading, and from that massive sample size, fewer than 5 percent have come back PSA 9 (1,037) and PSA 10 (59),” says Bleacher Report.

Sports Collectors Daily notes that Rice’s rookie card dominates the 1986 Topps football set, which also includes Steve Young and Reggie White rookie cards. “Sometimes there are discussions about who is greatest of all time at any position but no one has even come close to matching Rice at the receiver position. The Rice rookie is still incredibly desirable and is on just about any list of the best Topps football cards ever made. A PSA 10 sold in the fall of 2014 for $11,500. PSA 9 graded examples vary from $375 to about $600.”

3. 1984 Topps John Elway Rookie Card

1984 Topps Football is a legendary set for collectors, thanks in part to two-time Super Bowl champion John Elway. “John Elway’s career ended like a fairytale with back-to-back Super Bowl titles after failing to win titles throughout his Hall of Fame career,” writes Beckett. “He was the first pick in the famed 1983 NFL Draft that saw six QBs go in the first round. Elway’s Rookie Card is a staple of ’80s football.”

John Elway 1984 Topps Autograph Rookie Card RC #63 PSA/DNA 10
John Elway 1984 Topps Autograph Rookie Card RC #63 PSA/DNA 10

“Elway took his lumps as a rookie, but went 12-2 as a starter in his second year, and his career took off from there. He ranks in the top 15 all-time in passing yards (51,475, 11th) and passing touchdowns (300, 13th), won NFL MVP in 1987, earned nine Pro Bowl selections, took the Broncos to five Super Bowls, and won back-to-back titles to close out his playing career,” notes Bleacher Report. “Topps was the only game in town in 1984 when Elway’s rookie card was released, so that card is an easy choice for anyone who was a fan of his game throughout his 16-year Hall of Fame career.”

Cardboard Picasso says Elway’s rookie is his most “sought after card.” “Elway was one of the top quarterbacks of his era, playing his entire career with the Denver Broncos. He would win two Super Bowls including a Super Bowl MVP and a regular season MVP in 1987. Elway was also a nine-time Pro Bowler and often was mentioned for being one of the best pure athletes in NFL history who could have played multiple different sports. His most sought after card is his 1984 Topps Rookie card, investing in at least a PSA 9 example is a smart investment because 9’s will continue to trend up in value within the coming years.”

4. 1984 Topps Dan Marino Rookie Card

Elway’s rookie isn’t the only one to chase from the 1984 Topps set — Miami Dolphins Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino is, too. “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!” writes Bargain Bunch. “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 #123 Dan Marino Rookie Card BGS BCCG 9 Near Mint+
1984 Topps #123 Dan Marino Rookie Card BGS BCCG 9 Near Mint+

“A 1984 Topps Dan Marino Beckett 8.5 near-mint grade autograph card sold for over $1,300,” notes Jacqueline Rare Antique. “Marino was immediately noticeable in his first NFL season. By the second year of his career, Marino stunned his fans with his stellar performance and was named the NFL Most Valuable Player. Marino was the most prolific passer in NFL history. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.”

Despite never winning a Super Bowl, Marino is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. “Dan Marino retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. Even though he never won a Super Bowl, he is regarded as one of the greatest pure passers to ever play,” says Beckett. “This 1984 Topps RC is easy to find and a must for any collection.”

5. 1989 Score Barry Sanders

Another high-end set from that decade is 1989 Score. That set had rookie cards of future Hall-of-Famers Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders, but the best rookie card of the bunch was Barry Sanders. “The 1989 Score set gave top rookies special treatment with a unique design, and this was the leading card,” writes Beckett. “Perhaps no other football card is more responsible for the hobby’s popularity explosion in the early 1990s. Many believe Barry Sanders would be the NFL’s all-time leading rusher had he not retired before the 1999 season.”

Barry Sanders Autographed 1989 Score Rookie Card #257 Lions BGS 9 Auto Grade Gem Mint 10 Beckett BAS Stock #209307
Barry Sanders Autographed 1989 Score Rookie Card #257 Lions BGS 9 Auto Grade Gem Mint 10 Beckett BAS Stock #209307

“Barry Sanders is regarded as one of the best running backs of all-time, best known for his quickness and elusiveness. Many football experts often say had Sanders not retired early with the Lions in his career he would have all of the major running back records,” notes Cardboard Picasso. “He was an NFL MVP in 1997, led the league in rushing four times and was a six-time All-Pro. His most popular rookie card is his 1989 Score rookie, PSA graded 10 examples are continually trending up in value each year. Investing in this card will pay off hugely in the long-term, also look for signed and slabbed examples of this card as well!”

Even though Sanders had many rookie cards, 1989 Score is the gold standard. “Sanders has rookie cards in the 1989 Pro Set, 1989 Score and 1989 Topps Traded sets, but his Score rookie with a simple headshot is the most sought-after of the trio,” says Bleacher Report. “A staggering 22,717 have been submitted to PSA, with plenty of PSA 9 (8,781) and PSA 10 (1,975) in circulation.”

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

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About the Author

Matt Higgins

Matt Higgins worked in national and local news for 15 years. He started out as an overnight production assistant at Fox News Radio in 2007 and ended in 2021 as the Digital Managing Editor at CBS Philadelphia. Following his news career, he spent one year in the automotive industry as a Digital Platforms Content Specialist contractor with Subaru of America and is currently a freelance writer and editor for StudyFinds. Matt believes in facts, science and Philadelphia sports teams crushing his soul.

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  1. I’ve been collecting both sports and non sports cards. Since early 1960,s. Baseball and Football. As hockey and basketball. The one thing I’ve Learn, is patience. Having patience to wait and buy or sell. Yes these 1980,s cards are sought after. And VALUEABLE. But online prices are not the true value. There are several price guide books. And card shows that dictate the value. But most peaople buy off of eBay. Rather then a card show. Paying more for the card, dose not make that card that price.actually you can get the same cards at a card show much cheaper and keeping the same value. A newbie collecting cards make that mistake. It’s actually reversed. So buying or selling. It varys. At yard sales. Classifieds in the papper. You can buy cards cheaper.. but still keep the value. Gradeing as well. It boosts the value. PSG IS A GOOD COMPANY. BECKETTS AS WELL. GRADING CO,S.

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