Rookie. It's a term used so often in the collection world, that the true definition seems to escape us. Let us look closer at the term itself...
Definition: rook·ie: An inexperienced person; a novice
Ironic, it seems. Generally the most important card in any players career is his rookie card. But the majority of the time we spend looking at a RC is once a player is well established and therefore, no longer a rookie.
When compiling the list of top football rookie cards in the 1980's, it really seemed hard to fathom that any of these players were considered inexperienced or novice even during their first seasons in the league. But they once were bright eyed newbies with great promise. And they sure came true on that promise.
In chronological order (click the player's name to see those cards for sale on eBay):
1981 Topps Joe Montana RC
Joe Cool. With a capital C. If there were ever a nickname that fit, this was it. Montana was a 4-time Super Bowl winner, and most arguments over the best quarterback to ever play begin with him. Montana is an icon, and while not the easiest on the eye, his 1981 Topps RC is arguably the most important in the hobby since the day it was printed. Prone to centering problems, and general wear and tear from a lackluster period in the hobby, there are only a few of these in pristine condition. This card is a must have for any pure NFL collector, and should be respected amongst the greatest cards of all-time.
1984 Topps John Elway
Just a few short years after Montana began to rise the 49ers to prominence, the 1983 draft came stock full of quarterbacks looking to dethrone Comeback Joe. If any player could be said to have made a run at that title, it would be John Elway. What Elway lacked around him in talent on his team, he made up for with grit and uncanny ability to snatch victory from the very jaws of defeat. Montana won the Super Bowl battle between the two, and his rookie card just edges out Elway's as well in significance.
It is one of the most well known in the hobby, with proof being that there are tons of fake versions floating around in the market. A fake can usually be noticed next to an original, as the fake Elway RC's are about half as thick as a genuine version. That's pretty solid validation, if people think you're valuable enough to create a fake, you're definitely one of the best ever!
1984 Topps Dan Marino
Sitting alongside Elway in the 1984 Topps set (and some might say on the field as well), is Dan Marino. Marino will always be haunted by the fact that he couldn't quite capture a Lombardi trophy, but even this article proves that the competition was quite stiff in his day.
If there was ever a card that produced more fakes than the Elway, it is definitely Marino's. The centering on this card has always been a challenge to collectors and graders alike, but a GM MT 10 can be found for around $1,000 fairly easily. Some would say Marino's cards are still undervalued. Regardless, this card deserves a seat at the table, and in your collection.
1986 Topps Jerry Rice
Leave it to Topps to try and dampen the rookie card of one of the all-time greats. Sure, it didn't hurt to catch passes from Montana and Steve Young, but many argue that they were only as good as they were because of Rice. While the card itself probably doesn't deserve to be used for anything more than a coaster thanks to the infamous green border and flimsy quality, the smoothest pass catcher of all-time makes anything look good. BGS or PSA 10 Rice rookies sell for big bucks. Rice's card is one of the most important to the hobby, all despite Topps best efforts.
1989 Score Barry Sanders
One of the most exciting running backs of all-time creeps onto the 80's list just before the close of the decade. Sanders left the game a decade later while he was on top of HIS game, and left all of us 'wanting more.' Many fans turn toward collecting cards to fill the void of their favorite players gone by, and the 1989 Score set has stood out for some time with the likes of Troy Aikman, Deion Sanders, Derrick Thomas and more deserving a mention. But Sanders is the crown jewel of the set, and sells for a strong $200 in GM MT 10 condition.
For a decade of overproduced and poor quality card productions, the players depicted on the cards sure earned a spot in the top football rookie cards of the 1980's, and helped launch the NFL into the stratospher. It's just a shame the card companies weren't able to do them justice.