By Michael Moore
It’s hard to imagine a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony getting much bigger than this.
At the top of this year’s class are Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s touchdown kings. One is the undisputed greatest wide receiver ever to play the game, the other a legendary running back who holds one of the most prestigious NFL records that won’t be broken anytime soon – if ever.
Smith and Rice were two of the biggest names in professional sports during their heydays – not to mention two of the most collectible. Both men were major parts of the sports card hobby’s boom period in the 1990s, when more sports fans than ever were buying cards. Five years after hanging up their cleats, both men still are among the most popular among card collectors.
“The two respective leaders in career touchdowns and yards gained for their positions put the two players on the pedestal of some of the most sought after and collectible football players ever,” says Brandon Miller, Upper Deck’s brand manager for collegiate trading cards. “Every time Upper Deck releases new football product, collectors consult the checklist to find out what big names are included in the set. Emmitt and Jerry are historically two of the big staple names that UD has included to deliver value and drive products.”
Rice’s exploits on the football field are legendary. He is generally regarded as the greatest wide receiver ever to play the game and holds almost every passing record, including receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and touchdowns (197). He was named to 13 Pro Bowls and won three Super Bowls, winning MVP honors in Super Bowl XXIII.
Rice dominated opposing defenses for portions of three decades that saw him play for the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. When he failed to catch on with the Denver Broncos prior to the 2005 season, Rice decided to call it a career. By that time, Rice already had been nicknamed “The G.O.A.T.” – or “greatest of all time.”
Smith, a late first round pick out of Florida in 1990, played with a chip on his shoulder his entire career. Coming out of college, he was labeled as too small and too slow to succeed in the NFL. Then, even after winning Rookie of the Year honors and establishing himself as one of the league’s top players, Rice often played in the shadow of Barry Sanders. Critics sometimes dismissed Smith, attributing his success to playing on one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
Smith carried that chip on his shoulder throughout his entire career, and turned it into three Super Bowl victories, eight Pro Bowls and MVP awards for the 1993 season and Super Bowl XXVIII. Arguably Smith’s greatest achievement, however, came on Oct. 27, 2002, when he broke Walter Payton’s record for most career rushing yards on an 11-yard fourth quarter run.
Smith spent most of his career with the Dallas Cowboys before putting up two respectable seasons with the lowly Arizona Cardinals in 2003 and 2004. He finished his career with 18,355 rushing yards and 164 rushing TDs, both NFL records.
Among active NFL running backs, only LaDainian Tomlinson and Edgerrin James have more than 12,000 career rushing yards – and both are much closer to the ends of their brilliant careers than the beginning. Tomlinson would need to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of the next six seasons in order to catch Smith.
Likewise, Rice and Smith likely will stay atop the career TD list for the foreseeable future. Tomlinson is 22 TDs behind Smith – and a whopping 55 behind Rice.
Both of their rookie cards are among the most iconic sports cards ever made. Rice’s 1986 Topps RC #161, with its green and yellow border, was one of the most sought after football card of the 1980s, a runner up only to that of his Team of the Decade quarterback, Joe Montana.
Collectors in the 1990s often had a difficult time finding a clean copy of Smith’s 1990 Score Supplemental RC #101T, as the black border on the card made it especially prone to chipping. Collectors had to pay a premium back then for a mint copy of the card, and today the few that have received a PSA grade of 10 sell for hundreds of dollars more than a raw, ungraded copy.
Smith’s cards remain hot with Dallas-area collectors, according to Nick Redwine, owner of Nick’s Sports Cards and Memorabilia in Dallas, which has been in business since 1985. Smith’s rookie cards and base cards continue to sell especially well, according to Redwine, while more expensive autographs and memorabilia cards aren’t quite as popular with everyday collectors.
“His cards were very hot,” Redwine says. “Emmitt was, and still is, a mainstay in our hobby.”
Smith and Rice also have two of the most popular signatures among autograph collectors. Both sign clean, crisp autographs, and Smith’s has an especially artistic look to it.
Collectors can expect to spend about $140 for an authentic signed photo of Rice, or $160 for an authentic autographed mini helmet. Mounted Memories is selling footballs signed by Rice for $352, while a pack-pulled autograph card is difficult to find for much less than $100.
For many years, Smith was notoriously one of the toughest signers in all of professional sports. He’s softened in recent years, but his autographs still tend to sell higher than those of most of his contemporaries.
Smith’s autographed cards are more difficult to find than Rice’s, and somewhat more expensive. An autographed football commemorating Smith’s induction into the Hall of Fame – complete with “HOF 2010” inscription – is being sold by Steiner Sports Memorabilia for $699.99.
“His autographs are rare – and expensive,” notes Redwine.
Panini presented those who attended the enshrinement ceremony Aug. 6-8 with a chance to meet the newest inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Once again, Smith’s autograph was by far the most expensive. Rice’s autograph could be had for as little as $149 to have a flat item signed or as much as $179 to get his autograph on a full-size jersey or helmet. Those seeking Smith’s signature, however, had to pay $229 for an autograph on a flat item or a whopping $299 for a signature on a full-size jersey or helmet.
Panini plans to include Smith and Rice – along with the other members of the 2010 class — in this year’s products. Panini Classics, which was released in July, includes inserts, memorabilia cards and autographs of Rice, Smith and their fellow 2010 Hall of Fame classmates. Panini recently announced it had reached a multi-year agreement with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to become its exclusive trading card partner.
Panini has exclusive rights to produce Pro Football Hall of Fame-specific trading cards and memorabilia; to kick things off, the company will be offering a seven-card autograph set of this year’s inductees that will be sold exclusively at the Hall of Fame gift shop.
What that means for 2010 Topps products remains to be seen. Dating back to the 1990s, Topps has produced an insert and autograph set each year honoring that year’s Hall of Fame inductees. Sell sheets promoting the 2010 Topps Football product did not mention any such set, and Topps representatives did not respond to several requests for comment on any plans to include 2010 Hall of Fame inductees in this year’s sets.
Although Upper Deck won’t be able to produce any NFL-licensed products this year, the company does have plans to offer NCAA products. Miller says that Upper Deck already has reached an agreement with Rice to include him in this year’s sets, and also is hoping to include Smith.
“Their induction into the Hall of Fame is even more evidence of the value they have carried for UD over the years,” Miller says.
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