The King of PSA-Graded Vikings Cards
by Kevin Glew
It's not easy being a Vikings fan when you live in the heart of Seahawks country.
Just ask Jeff Smith. He's the owner of what's likely the world's most extensive collection of Minnesota Vikings PSA-graded cards and he has lived in the Seattle area his whole life.
"I always get a ton of flak from everyone around here," said Smith. "People always ask me if I'm from Minnesota. And I say, 'No, I'm from here.'"
The pain of being a Vikings fan has seldom been more acute than when the Seahawks edged the Vikings 10-9 in one of the NFC Wild Card games last season when Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining.
"I watched that game with all Seahawks fans," said Smith. "I wanted to cry. They just said, 'Maybe next time,' which I've heard for 40 years now."
As agonizing as that was, Smith says the Vikings' 30-27 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game on January 17, 1999, was worse. That was Randy Moss's rookie campaign and the Vikings went 15-1 in the regular season. They were leading the NFC Championship game 27-20 with just over two minutes remaining when kicker Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed a field goal all year, had a chance to seal the victory with a 38-yarder, but his kick sailed wide left. The Falcons came back and won in overtime.
"I really did cry after that game," said Smith. "They were one of the greatest teams I've ever seen. They're by far the best team not to win a Super Bowl."
But disappointments like this have became an accepted burden of being a Vikings fan. And despite the fact that the Vikings have never won a Super Bowl, Smith's allegiance remains strong. The 47-year-old collector is thick-skinned and tough â€" tough enough to open a sports card shop in Seattle in 1992, near the end of the sports card boom when many shops were closing. And tough enough to keep his shop open for six years, despite multiple robberies, before the final one convinced him to close his doors.
"I think I was robbed three or four times. It was like every other year," explained Smith. "The last time, I had a friend working for me and a guy actually came in with a gun and tied him up in the bathroom. This was in 1998 and my lease was up in two months, so I called the landlady and said, 'You know what? I'm done.' My friend was in shock [after the robbery]. It was so weird. When I pulled up to the store, I saw that the blinds were down and there were cop cars and news crews outside of my shop. And I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I get in there and my friend can barely talk. I asked, 'What happened?' and he simply replied, 'They took everything.'"
The police did catch the robber, but many of Smith's high-priced cards were not recovered.
So, having endured all of this, you can understand why Smith doesn't allow a little ribbing about his beloved Vikings in Seahawks country bother him.
But the question remains, how did a lifelong Seattle-area resident become a Vikings fan?
"There was no football team in Seattle when I was little and basically the year  I moved to Seattle [from Spokane] was the year that the Seahawks arrived," explained Smith. "I've always cheered for the Vikings. Don't ask me why. When I was seven years old, I just liked their helmets and I really liked Fran Tarkenton and their defense."
He remembers buying his first football card packs in 1976 when he was seven years old.
"When I was in second grade, my grandma would sometimes pick me up from school and she would take me to the store. There I'd get an ice cream cone, a pack of football cards, and a couple of pieces of candy for a dollar," recalled Smith. "I used to read the cards and play with them. In the 1970s, there was nothing else to do. ... My youngest brother is almost eight years younger than me, and I'd be bored out of my mind. So, for entertainment, I'd play with my football cards, read the backs, and then I started watching games."
Even when he was little, he'd trade for Vikings cards and he continued to do this until the eighth grade when he quit collecting for five years. After high school, he attended Shoreline Community College for Business Management, and he was waiting tables part time when he found out his neighbor was working at a Seattle card shop called Triple C Collectibles. Smith visited the store, which was one of the largest sports card shops on the West Coast at the time, and he knew immediately that he wanted to work there.
"I took a pretty big pay cut to work there," recalled Smith. "I think I was making $12 an hour before and I went to work there for $8 just because it was so cool."
Smith's passion for sports cards quickly became apparent to the store's owner and warehouse manager, and within six months, he was promoted to be the shop's retail manager. Just 21 at the time, Smith can remember the shop having 800, 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookies in its inventory. The shop also held a private signing with Griffey Jr. before the slugger starred in the big leagues. They paid Griffey a set fee and had him sign enough photos that their cost per autographed photo worked out to be $7.
"We were wholesaling those photos for $20 and retailing them for $30," recalled Smith.
As far back as when he was working at Triple C Collectibles in 1990, Smith's main collecting goal was to acquire a 1962 Topps Fran Tarkenton rookie in top condition.
"When I started working at that card shop, my goal was to obtain a nice example of that card," said Smith. "I searched extensively for it and finally found one; and that's the [PSA-graded] card that I own now. I originally bought it un-graded for $200."
That card has since been graded PSA NM-MT+ 8.5.
"That card is always terribly centered. It's kind of like the [1978 Topps Baseball] Eddie Murray rookie," said Smith. "My Tarkenton rookie is dead center on the front. The only reason it's not a [PSA MINT] 9 is because the back is off-center."
While working at Triple C Collectibles, Smith developed an entrepreneurial itch and decided to strike out on his own. He set up at card shows before opening a small shop called Smitty's Sportscards in Seattle, which operated from 1992 to 1998.
After he closed his physical store, he worked as a route sales representative for Frito-Lay, opened an eBay store, and decided to really focus on his Vikings collection.
"In my eBay store, I'd sell items that I didn't care about and then use that money to buy Vikings material," said Smith.
About two years earlier, he had learned about PSA.
"They had a big [card] show here in Tacoma, Washington, and while I was there, I noticed a guy next to me at one point that had a graded 1961 [Fleer] Jerry West card. So, I proceeded to ask him about it and the guy explained, 'I had it graded by PSA. They're a company that grades cards and you'll get more money for them if they're graded.' At the time, I didn't think anything more of it. That was probably in 1996," said Smith.
The hobby veteran continued to sell un-graded cards on eBay, but he started to notice that people were, in fact, paying more for PSA-graded cards. Thanks to his experience grading raw cards for his shop and performing appraisals for insurance companies, Smith had developed a good eye for high-grade cards.
"One day I just bit the bullet and sent in a stack of cards to PSA to see what would happen," said Smith.
Most of those cards came back with high grades and this helped inspire Smith to focus his collection on graded Minnesota Vikings cards produced between 1961 and 1988. He was particularly interested in Vikings Hall of Famers.
"Out of those [Vikings Set Registry team] sets from 1961 to 1988, I'm about 97 percent complete. I'm only missing maybe a dozen cards from those 27 years," said Smith.
He says the 1962 Topps Vikings team set has been the most difficult to assemble in top condition because of the black borders on the cards.
"The 1962 Topps set is the toughest in terms of quality, but the 1976 Topps team set is huge. There are 32 cards, so that one has been rough," said Smith.
When asked to rank the five most essential Vikings rookie cards, he puts the Tarkenton rookie at the top of that list, followed by the 1963 Topps Jim Marshall, 1964 Philadelphia Mick Tingelhoff, 1965 Philadelphia Carl Eller, and 1970 Topps Alan Page.
Though his focus is on Vikings cards from 1961 to 1988, he also owns cards of more recent stars like Randy Moss, Adrian Peterson, and Teddy Bridgewater. His collection also includes signed jerseys, helmets, bobbleheads, and other rare items.
Smith says there's plenty of competition for high-grade Vikings cards.
"There are definitely some hardcore Vikings fans out there. Sometimes I wish I was a Cardinals or a Buccaneers fan. It would save me a lot of money," he joked.
Smith says one of the challenges for him is finding the time to keep up with his collection. After working for Frito-Lay for 14 years, Smith decided to open his own snack food distributing company in 2014. He also prioritizes spending time with his wife, Angela, and three boys, Jacob (17), Cameron (15), and Carter (8).
So what does his family think of his collection?
"My wife thinks I'm insane," said Smith. "We met in 1991, so I was intensely focused on this when I met her, and I didn't even have a job at that point. I was just doing card shows when I met her and she couldn't understand how I could live off it. Then I opened my shop and ended up buying a house from the profits."
Of his three sons, his middle son, Cameron, has shown the most interest in his collection. He has also managed to convert his youngest son, Carter, into a Vikings fan, while his oldest son, Jacob, follows the Baltimore Ravens. So, at home, Smith doesn't take a lot of flak for being a Vikings fan â€" not that this would stop him from adding to what's already likely the world's largest collection of PSA-graded Vikings cards.
"My goal is to get the main team sets completed in the highest grade I can get them," he said. "And I really want to complete the Vikings Hall of Fame set in high grade."
For more information on Football trading cards in general, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/#5football-cards.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of July 2017.
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