Call them the modern "men in black."
Twenty-three years after Topps introduced black borders on their 1962 gridiron issue, the venerable card manufacturer revisited this distinctive design for their 1985 offering.
"I don't know that this set possesses the star power that a lot of the other sets do," noted Kevin Roberson, whose No. 1 1985 Topps Football set on the PSA Set Registry was recently named the year's Best Modern Football Set. "In Hall of Famers, you've got rookie cards of Richard Dent and Warren Moon, but compared to other sets, it certainly doesn't have the star power. I think the claim to fame that this set is going to have is the black borders -- that in itself places the set above most of the rest in my opinion."
At 396 cards, this offering is more than double the size of its 1962 black-bordered predecessor, and its regular player cards showcase horizontal fronts. Each player card presents a photo with the player's last name in large capital letters running up the right side, with the player's first name highlighted in a small box. The team nickname is also indicated on the right side, while "Topps" is printed above the photo on the left.
The card number (in a helmet design), the player name, team and position (inside a series of footballs) grace the top of the backs, followed by a short bio and season-by-season statistics. Vitals (e.g., height, weight, college, etc.) and copyright information can be found along the bottom.
The cards were distributed in a number of ways, but most prominently in 15-card wax packs that included a "Coming Soon" NFL Yearbook sticker and a piece of gum. Cards were also available in 28-card, 59-cent cello packs and two different types of rack packs. Regular rack packs housed 48 cards and included one of 11 bonus red-bordered "NFL Star" cards, while the grocery racks featured 42 cards (three individually wrapped stacks of 14 cards with gum in each). Roberson adds that cards were also distributed in 500-card vending boxes.
Three subsets are also part of this issue, including the vertically aligned Record Breakers (#1 to #6) and playoff cards (#7 to #9). The league leader cards (#192 to #197) boast a horizontal design similar to the player cards. Featuring Marino and Joe Montana, the Passing Leaders card (#192) is one of the set's most sought-after singles.
The player cards are sequenced alphabetically by conference, starting with the NFC's Atlanta Falcons (#10 to #21). The AFC portion begins with the Buffalo Bills (#198 to #208). The players within each team are in alphabetical order by last name. A Team Leaders card - featuring an action shot and slogan on the front and statistical leaders and results on the back - lead off each team section. The number of representatives from each franchise varies. For example, the New Orleans Saints (#100 to #109) and Houston Oilers (#248 to #257) are only represented on 10 cards each, while there are 20 pasteboards dedicated to the Miami Dolphins (#300 to #319).
For the collector who has assembled the registry's No. 2 Current Finest set, Frank Massaro, the 1985 set showcases one of his favorite seasons in football. "You've got all of the guys that I kind of grew up with like [John] Elway and [Dan] Marino," he explains. Massaro first started his collection with PSA NM-MT 8s and some PSA MINT 9s, but he was soon inspired to aim higher. "I picked up a [PSA GEM-MT] 10 and then I started thinking that it would be really cool to build this set in [PSA] 10."
As noted earlier, this offering does not boast the high-profile Hall of Famer rookies that the 1984 Topps (Marino, Elway) or the 1986 Topps (Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Reggie White) do, but it does offer the cardboard debuts of Richard Dent (#24), Warren Moon (#251) and Mike Munchak (#253) -- all of whom have busts in Canton.
Dent's rookie is the toughest to track down in PSA 10. Of the 506 graded, there have been just six PSA 10s. One PSA 10 sold for $818.99 on eBay in August 2012.
More than 2,385 examples of the Moon rookie have been submitted and there are 55 PSA 10s. Roberson and Massaro say the Moon is not a particularly difficult card to uncover in top condition.
The rookies of several other noteworthy players are also part of this issue, including Henry Ellard (#80), Carl Banks (#111), Darryl Talley (#207), Mark Clayton (#308), Irving Fryar (#325) and Louis Lipps (#358).
This set also offers the second-year cards of Elway (#238) and Marino (#251), but Roberson says the Broncos Team Leaders card (#235) that features a photo of Elway is more elusive than the legendary quarterback's regular issue.
"Personally, my favorite two cards in the set are of Elway," said Roberson. "You've got his second-year card (#238) and then you've got the Team Leaders card (#235). Only 123 of the Team Leaders cards have been graded. Now Elway is popular, so there's a reason they have only graded 123 of them."
Roberson says poor centering plagues the Broncos Team Leaders card.
"I can't tell you exactly where that team card is on the sheet, but wherever it's located, it just doesn't allow for it to be a well-centered card," he said.
Despite extensive efforts, uncut sheets of this issue were not uncovered to review for this article. Just three PSA 10s exist of the Broncos Team Leaders card, one of which sold for $279.44 on eBay in December 2011.
Other prominent Hall of Famers in this set includes Walter Payton (#33), Tony Dorsett (#40), Lawrence Taylor (#124), Joe Montana (#157), Howie Long (#292), Dan Fouts (#372) and Steve Largent (#389).
"From a value perspective, the biggest card is the Payton [in PSA 10]," said Roberson. "They've only graded four [PSA] 10s out of 686 submissions and the PSA 10s go for pretty hefty prices. I think the last one went for more than $3,000."
There are also several common cards in this offering that are difficult to track down in pristine condition. Roberson's No. 1 set may boast an impressive 9.82 GPA, but he still owns PSA 8 examples of Paul Coffman (#67) and Ray Guy (#288). A PSA 10 has yet to be uncovered of either card, and there are just three and two PSA 9s of each respectively.
Massaro hasn't been able to track down a PSA 9 or PSA 10 of Nick Lowery (#277) and Dokie Williams (#298).
"Right now, I'd be happy to have either card in a [PSA] 9. They're just really hard to find," said Massaro. "The Lowery is a tough card. I haven't even seen it come up for sale [in PSA 9 or better]."
The sole PSA 10 Lowery fetched $149.99 on eBay in April 2012.
Chipping on the borders is the most prevalent condition issue on cards from this issue.
"Any time you get the solid colored border versus a white border, I think that just puts it in a whole different realm of difficulty for condition sensitivity," said Roberson. "I've opened thousands of packs and getting [PSA] 10s is just brutal."
Massaro shares similar observations.
"With this set, if you get a little bit of white on the corners, you can really see it. It's really evident," he said.
Roberson adds that poor centering can also pose a problem.
"It's definitely a set that's not well-centered," he said.
It's also interesting to note that despite the 1985 set boasting a lower profile group of rookies, more hobbyists have started it on the PSA Set Registry than either the 1984 or 1986 sets (though there have been more individual submissions of the 1984 and 1986 cards).
"I think collectors like the 1985 set and they start building it thinking, 'Hey, this will be no problem.' Then they realize, 'Wow, this thing's a monster,'" explained Massaro. "It's not as easy as they think it's going to be, and then they give up."
But for hobbyists like Massaro and Roberson uncovering these modern "men in black" in top condition is part of the fun of collecting.
"If you have an appreciation for the difficulty of cards, you're going to have to put this set right up there as one of top three most difficult [football] sets from the 1980s," said Roberson. "And it would probably rank one of the top five sets from the 1970s and 1980s from a difficulty perspective."
"It's a tough set," added Massaro. "You've got to love collecting and you've got to love the set if you're going to pursue it. Now if you just want to build a set that's in PSA 8, that's fine; you'll have a great looking set. But if you're going to be one of the elite collectors, finding PSA 9s or PSA 10s [is challenging]. I don't want to say that the set is undervalued. I just think it's such a difficult set to build in really high grade that it scares people from doing it. I would tell collectors to start the set in PSA 8 and then upgrade when they can."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at email@example.com if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Kevin Roberson for providing scans. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of September 2013.
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