It could prove to be one of the "sweetest" football issues of the 1970s.
Not only does the 1976 Topps Football set boast the rookie card of "Sweetness" himself (Walter Payton, #148), it also harbors the cardboard debuts of fellow Hall of Famers Randy White (#158) and Jack Lambert (#220), as well as the first-year pasteboards of several others who may yet be honored in Canton.
"Harvey Martin (#44) is obviously a borderline Hall of Famer," noted Jim Nahigian, who owns the No. 7 Current Finest, 1976 Topps Football Set on the PSA Set Registry, when asked about potential Hall of Famers amongst the rookies in this issue. "And Ed 'Too Tall' Jones (#427) was a great player. It's hard to believe he's not already in the Hall of Fame. These guys [Martin and Jones] were kingpins of the Dallas defense and they didn't call it the 'Doomsday Defense' for nothing."
This set also features Randy Gradishar's rookie card (#257). A seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, Gradishar has been nominated for the Hall several times but has failed to garner enough support for induction. The first-year single of quarterback-turned-TV analyst Ron Jaworski (#426) is also in this set.
The fact that this 528-card offering could boast more Hall of Famer rookies in the future should boost its appeal. Like the cards in its predecessor, the regular 1976 Topps singles showcase large photos on white-bordered fronts. The team is indicated in a football design at the bottom, to the left of the player's position and name. The football design, framing around the photos and player names are color coordinated for each team, and once again, there were no team logos on these cards.
"I really like the design," said Kevin Roberson, who has assembled the No. 1 registry set. "The 1973 and 1974 [Topps Football cards] got a little bit boring, but I think this set is strong. I like the fact that they're colorful."
Nahigian is also fond of the layout.
"I've spent my life at the creative end of a manufacturing factory and I just love simple cards," he said. "To me, this is one of the most simplistic football cards ever."
The veteran collector also savors the photos.
"These photos are not your [typical] 1960s and early-1970s camera poses," said Nahigian. "There are actually some candid sideline shots."
The horizontal backs flaunt blue and orange print on gray card stock. On the left, you'll find the card number in a football helmet design, team name, player name, position, vitals (e.g., Height, Weight, College, etc.), biographical information and statistics. The right side houses the Topps logo and either a trivia question or one of a series of clues about a mystery teammate.
Like the 1975 Topps Football set, these cards were issued in 10-card, 15-cent wax packs that included a stick of gum. They were also distributed in 18-card, 25-cent cellos, 42-card, 49-cent rack packs, 500-card vending boxes and wax trays.
Topps opted to forego the Highlights and All-Pro subsets that were part of their previous pigskin issue. The All-Pro designation was incorporated into the design of the regular player cards. But like its predecessor, this set does include Record Breakers (#1 to #8), Leaders (#201 to #206) and playoff cards (#331 to #333).
This set also added a subset of team checklists (#451 to #478). These cards present a listing of the players on the fronts with the team leaders in four categories (Passing, Rushing, Receiving, and Scoring) and the card number of the team's mystery player on their backs. These cards have proven to be difficult to uncover in top condition.
"You can find the team checklists in really high quality as far as sharpness and color, but it's the centering on them that's just impossible," said Mick Daly, who owns the No. 3 and No. 5 Current Finest, 1976 Topps Football sets on the PSA Set Registry.
Nahigian has had a similar experience.
"I've come to accept the fact that I'm going to have to work with some [PSA NM-MT] 8s on the team checklist cards," he said.
With just one PSA MINT 9 example, the Vikings checklist (#465) is the most elusive card to find in mint or gem-mint grade. The sole PSA 9 fetched $199.99 on eBay in April 2013.
A complete sheet of 28 team checklists, plus two additional checklists, was also available via a mail-in offer.
This set also boasts the first Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers cards. These two teams were added prior to the 1976 NFL season.
But this set is, of course, anchored by the Payton rookie (#148).
"Payton is one of the biggest rookies of the 1970s," said Daly. "When I think of rookie cards from the 1970s, I'd go Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and then you'd probably have to say Payton is right in there. I think you might rank Bradshaw higher because it's a harder card from the 1971 Topps set."
Nahigian offers a similar opinion.
"I don't know that you could displace the Bradshaw rookie card as the No. 1 rookie card of the 1970s," he said. "I think that would probably be a hard call. Payton might be No. 2. The Paytons in PSA 9 are very expensive, and sometimes you see a PSA [GEM-MT] 10 come up for auction and the price of those is just absolutely through the roof."
Though there are 39 PSA 10s, the Payton rookie is sometimes found off-center.
"Even if you get a nicely centered Payton card on the front, it's typically going to be 70/30 or 60/40 on the back," said Roberson.
One PSA 10 Payton sold for $8,365 in a Heritage Auctions sale in November 2013.
Hobbyists seem to agree that the Lambert rookie (#220) is the second-most valuable in this offering. Of the 930 evaluated, there have been nine PSA 10s and 124 PSA 9s. One PSA 10 sold for $2,200 on eBay in February 2013.
Nahigian says the Jaworski card (#426) has been the most elusive rookie card for him to uncover in high grade. There has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are 32 PSA 9s. A PSA 9 sold for $75 on eBay in June 2013.
Sought-after singles of several other Hall of Famers are also featured in this set, including Terry Bradshaw (#75), Franco Harris (#100), Dan Fouts (#128), Lynn Swann (#140), Roger Staubach (#395) and Mel Blount (#480). This set also boasts the last regular issue cards of Hall of Famers Len Dawson (#308), George Blanda (#355) and Mel Renfro (#368).
"The [Terry] Bradshaw (#75) is probably the most coveted card of all the [non-rookie] Hall of Famers," explained Nahigian. "The Pittsburgh cards are very popular because they were obviously at the peak of their dynasty."
There are just two PSA 10 Bradshaw cards and one sold for $793.50 in a Memory Lane, Inc. auction in February 2010.
One of the most difficult Hall of Famer cards to obtain in top condition has been the Curley Culp (#40). A partial proof sheet sold by the Topps Vault on eBay in December 2013 reveals that the Culp card is located on the far left edge of the sheet, a position that generally makes cards susceptible to flaws such as miscuts. Roberson owns the sole PSA 10 and there is just one PSA 9.
Nahigian is still looking for a PSA 9 Ken Anderson (#10) for his registry set.
"I've been looking for a Ken Anderson [PSA 9] card for a long time," said Nahigian. "I was outbid on the last one and it ended up going for almost $200."
Like the Culp card, the Anderson is positioned on the edge of the sheet (far right edge), so it's not surprising that this card is frequently found off-center. There has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just eight PSA 9s.
Daly cites the Herman Weaver single (#375) as one of the toughest cards to track down. Not surprisingly, this card is also situated on the far left edge of a row on the sheet. Just 11 have been submitted and there are only three PSA 9s (with nothing grading higher).
Daly says it's generally poor left-to-right centering that plagues cards from this issue.
"I think it's easier to find high grade cards from the 1975 set," he said.
With the relative scarcity of certain cards in top condition, combined with its strong and potentially growing Hall of Fame rookie crop, the 1976 Topps Football set could prove to be a "sweet" investment for collectors.
"Given the number of Hall of Famer rookies in this set and just its style in general, I feel this set is still way undervalued," said Daly.
Roberson shares similar thoughts.
"I think it will have a stronger future than the 1975, 1977, 1978 and 1979 [Topps Football sets] just because of the Walter Payton rookie," he said. "And in regards to its growth potential, I think it's probably going to be even stronger than the 1971 or 1972 [Topps Football] sets because those have probably already come into their own. This set is kind of like that mid-stock where it still has some room to grow."
"I think a lot of collectors that were growing up in the 1970s will matriculate to this set if they haven't already," he said. "I feel this will become a coveted set. Many sets from the later 1970s are almost on the cusp of reaching the demand that the late-1960s and early-1970s [sets] have already obtained. I think you'll see this set probably peaking in demand in the next five or 10 years."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Kevin Roberson for providing images for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of March 2014.