Trading Memories: Former NFL Stars Recall Stories Behind Their Cards
This story begins, as so many do, by accident.
We were at the CBS Sports NFL Media luncheon last August. We were waiting to talk to former Texans general manager Charlie Casserly. Just to the right of Casserly stood Randy Cross, three-time All-Pro and owner of three Super Bowl rings. Darting from the front of the room, Ian Eagle, CBS announcer extraordinaire, came up to Cross with his arm extended. He had found Cross' football card in his collection the night before and wanted to give it to him. That's when we discovered The Phenomenon.
Cross immediately recognized the moment in the card. "I remember this game," Cross began explaining to Eagle. "It was my third year, I had just broken my wrist the week before, and right before the half, I broke my left ankle and missed the rest of that year."
The two chatted about it for a little while longer, until a light bulb went on: Is this just some feat that Cross can pull because maybe he's a football card junkie?
As it turned out, no. Not at all.
Former Raiders quarterback Steve Beuerlein was standing a few feet from us. We ran over and asked him if he had the ability to look at a football card of his and remember the game. "I remember that exact play when the picture was taken," Beuerlein said. "You know how golfers can go back in their mind and say, 'Three years ago I was at Harbour Town and I was on the fifth hole and I hit my first shot to the right?' Same with us. Our memories are so vivid of these things."
This set off a two-month obsession for us. We tracked down as many former football players as we could and began showing them their cards and asking if they remembered the games, plays or moments depicted in each. Jerry Rice actually had us flip through more of his cards and seemed to enjoy the reminiscing. Jerome Bettis looked at a college card and recalled the exact game, noting the color of his mouth guard as the focal point of the story. Keyshawn Johnson said he could even tell what play the picture was from.
What follows are the best stories we gathered from the former pros. And we owe it all to Ian Eagle and his reluctance to throw away his old football cards.
When you have a chance to sit down with Ronnie Lott, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, you don't usually start asking him about his trading cards. That topic lies somewhere between "Tell me about the hardest hit you've given" and "What did you have for dinner last night?" But when we got a chance to speak with Lott about his experience with trading cards, it was he who really put what it meant to be immortalized on a cardboard cutout into terms we could all understand.
"We all work hard to find ways to achieve our high school diploma," Lott said. "We find ways to achieve getting our college degree. We find ways to excel in certain sports. We find ways to capture moments that solidify those certain things. To me, one of the things that solidified that you belonged in pros was when you got your first trading card."
It was a milestone, he told us. It actually meant something to Lott. Something more than just the rhythmic pitter-patter in the spokes of a bike. It was an unofficial diploma, if you will.
Lott let us know that there was a time when he could look at a specific card and know what the exact moment and situation was when the photo was taken. He did, however, admit that it might be a little tougher today for him to recognize the play, but he could give you a moment. Lott understood exactly why we were getting so many players who could see a card and respond to the photo on the front.
"You have an eye for watching film (in this profession)," Lott said. "You have an eye for watching where you're at all the time, knowing the situations. So, yeah, I can see players and I can see myself knowing those specific situations."
Our usual retort to players who remember those exact moments is, "I have a hard time remembering what I had for lunch two days ago." Maybe watching film of us eating lunch would help, though we highly doubt it. It certainly makes sense from a football player's perspective.
One of the tougher players to peg was all-time great Broncos quarterback John Elway. The reason being, if you were to jump on eBay right now and search for "John Elway Cards" you would find thousands of cards, most of which are of Elway in a drop-back position getting ready to throw down the field. There are often times no significant markers on the card to even tell you which team he was playing against. No lineman chasing him, no running back getting ready to take a handoff, just Elway doing what he did best -- dropping back.
Elway, as expected, admitted that the warmup, drop-back and pass-and-catch cards are the most difficult to identify. That makes sense. He did, however, also say that he could look at an action shot and return back to the moment.
"I can remember the game from when each card was taken," he said, "but not necessarily the play itself."
Being captured on a card for the first time was also a very special moment for Elway, who was an avid collector as a kid. To be in the company of some of his favorite athletes growing up was indeed an honor for Elway.
"To finally have a card with your picture on it was very flattering," Elway said. "You feel like you're one of the guys. Especially when you're a young athlete and you're looking up to those guys whose cards you yourself own."
Just like many of us looked up to Elway, it wasn't until he saw himself on a trading card that he felt less like a fan and knew he had finally joined the ranks.
Making an argument for Jerry Rice as the NFL's greatest football player doesn't take much: he's the all-time leader in touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, all-purpose yards and playoff game appearances. He's a 13-time Pro Bowler and has 11 All-Pro selections. More importantly for us, though, was that his ascent to greatness coincided with the boom of the card industry.
His 1986 rookie card sells for hundreds of dollars and is relatively scarce, but as his stature grew, so did his number of cards. Before we talked to him, we went over a large stack of cards that we had unearthed, deciding which to show him. It turned out the shuffling was all for naught; after we asked him about one card, we'd have a moment of awkward silence before figuring out that he wanted to see the next one. Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest player the game of football has ever seen, was actually enjoying this trip down memory lane.
"When you see stuff like this, it's great," he explained. "Because when you actually play the game, you don't pay that close attention to it. You're constantly getting ready for the next battle. But I see some photos now and I'm like, 'Did I do that? How did I make that catch?' It is so funny."
Rice took a look at about 10 cards, and his ability to recall the moments was amazing. His 1987 Topps card, for instance, featured a shot of Rice dropping back to throw a pass off a reverse. "It was an incompletion," Rice recalled. "I remember this. The only one that I scored off was the one I threw to JJ Stokes, in Atlanta."
An All-Pro card that featured him wearing jersey No. 81 instead of his customary 80 had him remembering that he couldn't wear 80 because Henry Ellard had seniority. "So I had to wear number 81," he told us.
But the crown jewel of Rice's recall skills came when we showed him a 1991 Pro Set card. It featured Rice, in the end zone, with no other players around him, just a referee in the background and some fans hanging over a wall. "This was from a playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park," Rice said. "It's where I caught a ball over the middle and I was able to outsprint them to the end zone. And that really got that offense going."
By this point, we were convinced he was just messing with us. But Rice said that it was just a matter of having been in that moment. "I did this thing for the NFL Network with Steve Mariucci, and they pulled out some old photos and I'm like, 'Oh my God. I remember this, it's the night I broke Jim Brown's record.' I remember being in the end zone and you always just remember that visual. It's the same thing with cards. If you laid out the majority of the pictures and cards, I would be able to look at them and say, 'OK I remember that.' The majority of cards that I see," he said, "there's a story."
Steve Beuerlein played 14 seasons in the NFL, led the league in passing in 1999, and was selected for the Pro Bowl. But the football card he sees the most isn't even his.
"It was Lawrence Taylor's card," Beuerlein told us. "He's in midair getting ready to land on me. People come up to me all the time and ask me, 'Will you sign this card?' and I'm like, 'That's his card, that's not even my card! What do you want me to sign his card for?' He killed me on that play."
Beuerlein says he not only remembers the play on the card, but other painful memories of the day, as well. "I remember Pepper Johnson blitzing up the middle and just hitting me right in the chin as I was letting go of a pass. One of the most painful hits I ever took. These things just come as you think about the game. They flash in your mind."
Every year, Beuerlein would receive about 100 of his cards from the companies at his home. He says he has thousands of his cards at home, and every once in a while, he'll pop open a box with his kids, they'll find one of his cards, and the wheels will start turning.
"You look at it for a second, you give your mind a second, and you start thinking. What year was this? Then, OK, was it against the Raiders or against the Cowboys?... Oh... tough game... I remember that tough play. Then all of a sudden you're like, 'Alright, this was the second quarter.' It starts coming back to you. You can't remember all of them. You can't remember every play you ever did, but you can remember the games and sometimes you'll remember that moment exactly."
And of all the cards that Beuerlein has, he says his rookie card is his most cherished. "It's the only one I've got that's worth over 50 cents."
Keyshawn Johnson currently has over 50,000 football cards stored in boxes, all stacked up in his garage. Not all are of him, but he's never taken the time to count and see how many are. Still, if he pulled one out at random, Johnson could not only tell you the game in which the photo was taken, but most likely the exact play.
"In 11 years, however many games I played, I remember things," he told us. "I'll remember the game. 'That was in Miami.' 'That was in Chicago.' 'It was 1st and 10. I was on that side of the field.' Every time you pick up a card, it's the same thing."
Johnson says that most of the cards, by nature, feature him doing something of significance in the game, so it makes things a little easier to remember. Still, he offers a vaguely magical reason for the details being locked in his brain. "There's something about that shot. You've seen that shot a million times."
Form this day forward, we will never speak to a former football player without somehow finding a way to bring up the question of them remembering their football cards. So far, only two have failed to recall any moments: Jason Sehorn, who says that it's just hard as a defensive back to identify the plays, and Jim Kelly, who told us he has suffered too many concussions and can't remember too much specifically about his cards. But every other player, to a man, can recall games, plays and moments related to the images on their football cards. Each one, as Jerry Rice rightfully said, is a story.
And this story, as many often do, comes back to Ian Eagle, whose random discovery of a Randy Cross card in his basement set off a series of events that awoke the world to this phenomenon. His motivation? "One of the cards I found was Randy Cross," Eagle says. "I just figured I might as well give it to him."
After all, what's merely a simple picture of a moment captured in time to Ian Eagle is a storied memory with a beginning and an end to Randy Cross.