You might think that hobbyists pursuing the most heavily-collected football set on the PSA Set Registry would be battling it out for cards like opposing linemen in the Super Bowl.
But that's not the case. Oh sure, these collectors strive to assemble the registry's best Pro Football Hall of Fame Rookie Players sets, but that goal seems secondary to fostering friendships with their fellow hobbyists.
"Yeah, it's competitive, and we rib each other like 'I got the [Roger] Wehrli rookie and you don't.' But there's also a lot of camaraderie," explained Vince Bellier, who has amassed the No. 2 Current Finest registry set while living in Australia. "It's a really close-knit community because we're all just football nuts. We help each other out."
Glenn Swanson, who was one of the first to collect this set, has enjoyed a similar experience.
"The collectors that I have dealt with are nothing but outstanding, stand-up guys," he said.
Joe Squires, who owns the registry's No. 1 Current Finest set, echoes the sentiments of his registry mates.
"At one point, I knew 15 of the top 20 guys on the registry," said Squires. "I even knew their cell phone numbers, so I could call them up to talk. There are many guys collecting the set that I'm very good friends with."
Squires believes in sharing information and educating new collectors. If he upgrades a card, he generally offers the pasteboard he's replacing to fellow registry collectors before he puts it up for auction.
This type of goodwill helps explain why so many gridiron enthusiasts (135 sets registered) have embraced this set. To conquer this set, collectors must track down the rookie cards of 218 pigskin legends from sets ranging from 1933 Goudey to 1995 SP as of September 2012.
Veteran collector Jason Peeples, with input from Swanson who served with him in the U.S. military, was the driving force behind this registry set that was launched in February 2003. To establish which cards should be included, Peeples polled his fellow gridiron collectors on the PSA Set Registry message boards.
"Reading the back of the cards in this set is a really good history lesson," said Bellier.
"I'm only 42 and I see a lot of these legends on NFL Films, and it's good to pull the card out and read the back to see what they did in college and things of that nature," he said. "I've never had the opportunity to get to Canton [home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame], but just by reading the cards, it almost feels like you're visiting the Hall of Fame."
But as much as collectors love this set, they admit that tracking down all of the cards can be a daunting task.
"It can be an expensive hobby," noted Dan Dockry, who owns the registry's No. 3 Current Finest set. "You have to determine what you want to spend."
Prices for cards can range from less than $50 to tens of thousands of dollars.
"When I started, there weren't that many people collecting, so it was easier to get cards less expensively-of course, those prices went up pretty quickly once everyone else started jumping on board," said Dockry.
Collectors agree that the Holy Grail of the set is the 1935 National Chicle Bronko Nagurski (#34).
"The Nagurski card is like the Honus Wagner of football cards," said Dockry. "It's not an easy card to find."
Squires, who secured his PSA NM-MT 8 Nagurski in a private transaction, concurs.
"The last PSA [NM] 7 sold for close to $25,000," he added.
Part of a tough, high-number series, the Nagurski is also often found with centering issues. Of the 130 evaluated, there has been one PSA MINT 9, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and six PSA 8s. The PSA 9 sold for $350,000 in a private transaction brokered by Memory Lane, Inc. in January 2011.
Cards from the 1948 Leaf set are also difficult to find in top condition. Printed on poor stock, these pasteboards are sometimes found miscut or even trimmed. The Sid Luckman rookie, the first card in the 1948 Leaf set, is particularly evasive in flawless form.
"What makes it difficult is that it was the set's first card," said Swanson, adding that the card was subjected to additional wear and tear.
There has yet to be a Luckman that has graded above PSA 8. One PSA 8 sold for $40,051.80 in a Goodwin & Co. auction in February 2011.
The Sammy Baugh (#34), Leo Nomellini (#52) and Chuck Bednarik (#54) rookies are also in the 1948 Leaf offering.
"Finding Bednarik and Nomellini centered and in high-grade is virtually impossible," said Bellier.
The sole PSA 8 (no examples have graded higher) Bednarik garnered $38,561.10 in a Goodwin & Co. auction in November 2007, while a PSA 8 Nomellini fetched $25,471.95 in a Goodwin auction in December 2011.
In Dockry's experience, the 1957 Topps Raymond Berry rookie (#94) has also been elusive in pristine form.
"That's a hard card to find centered and in an [PSA] 8," he said.
Of the 462 submitted, there has been one PSA 9, two PSA 8.5s and 33 PSA 8s. A PSA 8.5 fetched $2,427.60 in a Mile High Card Company auction in October 2011.
The 1965 Topps Joe Namath rookie (#122) is another key card.
"The Namath rookie is hard to find centered because it's an oversized card. It's a larger card and they didn't cut them very well back then," explained Dockry.
There has yet to be a PSA GEM-MT 10 Namath, which is considered a short print. A PSA 8 sold for $4,050 on eBay in August 2011.
Bellier says that the 1971 Topps Roger Wehrli rookie (#188) has been particularly tough for him to uncover in Mint condition. There are just seven PSA 9s (with no PSA 10s).
Squires had a hard time landing a PSA 10 rookie of his gridiron hero, Steve Largent (1977 Topps, #177). His wife eventually bought him one.
"Not only is Steve Largent my favorite player in the NFL, but my wife got me that card for my birthday. So if I'm talking about a card that will never leave my collection, that's it," said Squires.
The veteran collector also points out that Dan Hampton's 1981 Topps rookie (#316) is surprisingly elusive in flawless form.
Although the 1981 Topps set is not a particularly difficult one, the Hampton rookie has proven to be a challenge. As Squires highlights, there are only two of them (in a PSA 10) on the PSA Population Report. "And it's been a Pop 2 for five years," he further adds.
Squires says the Hampton card is often miscut because of its position on one of the 1981 Topps sheets: top row, third card from the left.
And while Pro Football Hall of Fame Rookie Players set collectors will help each other find cards like the Hampton rookie, they face competition from rookie card collectors, player set enthusiasts and team set collectors.
They also have to add rookie cards of new inductees each year. To facilitate this process, Peeples established the Future Hall of Fame Rookie Players sets for potential modern and senior inductees. But while these sets are also widely collected, the Hall of Fame Rookie Players set remains the most popular.
"It's considered the premier football set," said Squires. "If you collect football sets, this is the one."
The savvy hobbyist is one of the leaders of this friendly group of set registry enthusiasts that continues to help each other out and contribute to a lively thread on the PSA message boards. And though they collect for kinship more than investment, their sets should maintain their value over the long term.
"If you are willing to do the research and find out what cards are undervalued and are willing to wait, then – yes – it's a great way to invest," said Bellier.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Vince Bellier and Joe Squires provided scans to the author for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of September 2012.