All-time Top-10: NFL players turned TV studio hosts; ranked by field success, card value and analysis

Card aficionado and sports attorney Sal Siino breaks it down

Today, we shift our focus to the Top 10 all-time studio analyst football cards.

Last week, we ranked the, All-time, top-20 NFL broadcasters: Those who also played the game.  In August, we did a piece onRanking: Top 25 cards of former players who are now in MLB booth  and an  All-time ranking: The top 25 baseball cards of ex-players who became popular broadcasters

The MVP of NFL studio work, Brent Musburger,  never played the game. Yet, he helped popularize NFL Today on CBS. From there, shows mushroomed on other over the air networks, ESPN, HBO and elsewhere. One of Musburger’s best known partners, Irv Cross, did play in the league.

In this fourth installment in our series, Sports Broadcast Journal continues the journey down memory lane.

Since 1888, sports trading cards have chronicled the evolution of America’s most popular sports and played such a memorable element of our childhood. Similar to how listening to old songs can instantly transport us years back to specific moments in time, these cardboard treasures can narrate unending personal memoirs.

Over the last several decades, sports trading cards have appreciated from bicycle spoke decorations into full-fledged art-like investment assets. Earlier this year, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle in gem mint condition sold at auction for $2,880,000. As we all know, however, not all players and cards are created equally. When most of us were ripping open packs of cards, we gravitated to the cards of the elite superstars and speculated with rookie cards of the highest potential prospects.

Years later, as I flip through old sets, it is amazing how many then-popular and less heralded cards now represent today’s top sports broadcast talent.

In establishing these rankings, we balanced three criteria for each announcer football card: (1) Playing Career (2) Announcing Career and (3) Popularity of the football card.

Playing Career” is based upon on-field accomplishments and post-season success.

Announcing Career” is based upon durability, popularity, insight, time in position, presence, visibility and respect.

Football Card Popularity” is based upon the monetary value of the card, the overall look of the card, any scarcity or nuances of the specific card issue and overall popularity of the card.

Here’s the countdown:

10) 1963 Fleer Nick Buoniconti – One of the biggest names of the Miami Dolphins No-Name Defense, Nick Buoniconti, claims the #10 spot in our all-time rankings. NFL scouts originally shied away from the undersized Notre Dame collegiate All-American – so Buoniconti originally took his talents to the AFL and signed with the Boston Patriots. He made an immediate impact with the Patriots, and later as a star in the NFL with the Dolphins over his Hall of Fame career. Buoniconti amassed 2 Super Bowl championships, 6 AFL All-Star selections, 2 Pro Bowl invites and membership to the AFL All-time team. While playing for the Patriots, he earned his law degree. Following his playing days, Buoniconti served as President of the US Tobacco Company. In 1977, HBO recruited him to team with Len Dawson for the launch of its ground-breaking studio highlight and analysis show – Inside the NFL. Each week, Nick and Len provided the ultimate destination for highlights of all the previous week’s action. On the football card front, Buoniconti debuted in the 1963 Fleer issue. This rookie card is valued at nearly $1,000 in Mint condition.


9) 1986 Topps Boomer Esiason – 14-year NFL veteran Boomer Esiason steps into the #9 position in our countdown. The University of Maryland was the only school to offer the Long Island native a scholarship. Esiason repaid that faith by setting 17 school records en route to becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks in school history. The Cincinnati Bengals then selected Esiason with their 2nd round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft. He compiled an impressive career, starring for the Bengals, Jets and Cardinals; highlighted by earning the 1988 NFL MVP. He also rolled up 4 Pro-Bowl selections and threw for 37,920 yards and 247 touchdowns. Esiason began his broadcast career as an active player,using the off-season to color commentate on World League of American Football games for USA Network. Once he hung up his cleats, he embarked on a full-time broadcast career loaded with a diverse portfolio of roles with ABC, HBO, Westwood One, CBS, Showtime and WFAN-AM. He currently co-hosts Inside the NFL, serves as studio analyst for CBS’ The NFL Today and co-hosts a radio morning show in New York. Esiason has also found a few hours for some Hollywood appearances including The Game Plan, Spin CIty, Family Feud, Blue Bloods and host of the 1999 Miss America. The 1986 Topps Boomer Esiason rookie card is quite popular and commands a $500+ sale price in Gem Mint condition – a strong number given Topps’ overproduction of its cards in the late 1980s.


8) 1984 Topps Dan Marino – Perhaps the greatest quarterback to never win a Super Bowl, Dan Marino is #8 in our rankings. He chose to stay home for college, starring for the University of Pittsburgh where he was #4 in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a junior. Marino was the last of 6 quarterbacks drafted in first round of the storied 1983 NFL Draft. In addition, he holds the distinction of being the first player ever selected in the USFL Draft. Rather than opt to play for the Los Angeles Express, he took the NFL path and played his entire 17-career with the Miami Dolphins.  As a rookie, Marino took the NFL by storm and never looked back. His mind-blowing Hall of Fame career statistics include 61,361 passing yards, 420 touchdowns, 9 Pro-Bowl selections, a league MVP award, and a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Upon retirement, Marino kept busy, including a 12-year run on CBS’s NFL Today, 6 years with Inside the NFL and several Hollywood cameos including The Simpsons, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Bad Boys II and Little Nicky. Despite its lack of scarcity, his 1984 Topps rookie card garners more than $1,000.


7) 1984 Topps USFL Steve Young ∫- The great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young achieves our #7 ranking. Following his family lineage, Steve Young turned down numerous scholarship offers to play quarterback for the BYU Cougars. Once arriving on campus, Young had his challenges throwing the football and his coaches considered moving him to the defensive backfield. Fortunately, he remained steadfast in his desire to play quarterback and improve his game – he took over the starting quarterback position upon Jim McMahon’s graduation. Young thrived as a starter, smashing just about all of the school’s passing records. He eventually finished second to Mike Rozier in the in the 1983 Heisman Trophy balloting. Young initially passed on the opportunity to play in the NFL and signed a then-massive 10 year, $40 Million contract with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL. Once the league folded, he joined the Tampa Buccaneers (drafted in 1st Round of Supplemental Draft). Many pundits deemed Young a bust as the Bucs used their top pick in the 1987 NFL Draft on another quarterback (Vinny Testaverde). The 49ers then traded for Young to carry the clipboard for Joe Montana. He finally broke through as a starting QB in his 8th NFL season as he was given the keys to the 49ers engine. Although it took a bit for the flame to catch fire, Young won the NFL’s MVP award twice as he threw for 33,124 yards, 232 passing touchdowns, 43 rushing touchdowns and won the 1995 Super Bowl MVP en route to leading the 49ers to a championship. Beyond the gridiron, Young leveraged his off-seasons to gain his juris doctor degree and to co-found a private equity firm – Huntsman Gay Global Capital. Now, following his playing days, Young moonlights as a studio analyst for ESPN Sunday Night Football. Young’s rookie card is part of the inaugural USFL issue put out by Topps in 1984. 26 copies of the LA Express quarterback have achieved a Gem Mint grade by PSA – and a record sale price of more than $8,000.


6) 1963 Fleer Len Dawson – Football studio pioneer Len Dawson earns our #6 position. Purdue assistant coach Hank Stram recruited the star quarterback to join the Boilermakers. After a stellar collegiate career, the Pittsburgh Steelers nabbed Dawson with the 5th overall pick in the 1957 NFL Draft. He struggled the first several years of his career as he was unable to win the starting QB role for both the Steelers and Browns. After being released by the Browns in 1962, Dawson reunited with Hank Stram and his Dallas Texans team in the AFL. He made the most of the new life, and was named AFL Most Valuable Player in his first season. Dawson went on to lead the Texans (later re-named the Chiefs) to 3 AFL Championships and a win in Super Bowl IV over the Minnesota Vikings. Upon retirement, Dawson became the sports director at KMBC-TV and called Chiefs games on the radio. In 1977, Dawson and Nick Buoniconti teamed for the breakthrough studio HBO highlight  program Inside the NFL – the go to destination for the week’s highlights before the birth of ESPN. The duo continued their success with HBO thru 2001. From 1977 to 1982, Dawson also moonlit as an NFL color commentator for NBC. Although Dawson debuted with the Steelers in 1957, as a backup QB, he was not featured on a football card until his AFL days. His rookie card is part of the 1963 Fleer issue that exclusively feature AFL players. A PSA graded Mint copy of the 19-year pro and Hall of Famer is valued at $1,600.

5) 1993 Fleer Ultra Michael Strahan – The genial Michael Strahan muscles his way into the Top 5 of our countdown. Although he only played one year of high school football, Strahan still managed to earn a scholarship to Texas Southern University. He absolutely dominated the Division I-AA ranks and was named Black College Defensive Player of the Year. The New York Giants selected the small school superstar with their second round pick in the 1993 NFL Draft. In 2001, Strahan set the NFL single season sack record with 22.5 sacks – earning himself an NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. He left the game on top – his final game was the Super Bowl victory foiling the Patriots run at an undefeated season in 2008. His 15 year dominating career with the Giants earned Strahan an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Strahan quickly transitioned to the studio as a member of the Fox NFL Sunday team. His lovable personality gained Strahan mainstream popularity and landed him on Live! With Kelly and Michael – where he was a two-time Daytime Emmy winner for Outstanding Talk Show Host. Strahan continues his winning ways in the Fox football studio and with Good Morning America. All of this on-field and studio popularity fuels strong interest in his football cards. His 1993 Ultra rookie card features attractive full-bleed photography with a subtle foil accent. Given the era of the card, the lack of scarcity prevents any massive price appreciation – a Gem Mint copy can be purchased for just under $100.

4) 1964 Philadelphia Irv Cross – Northwestern University’s Irv Cross holds down the #4 position in our all-time rankings. The two-time All-Pro cornerback starred for the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams over his nine year NFL career. Upon his retirement, Cross became the first African-American to hold a full-time, national commentating position when he joined CBS. The versatile pioneer expanded beyond football, and commentated on track & field, gymnastics and basketball games for the network. Perhaps his greatest acclaim comes from his popular role on NFL Today – the groundbreaking pre-game show. In 2009, Cross was awarded with the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award for his excellent career as a broadcaster. Despite his wide popularity on television, Cross’s football cards never achieved monetary significance as his 1964 Philadelphia rookie card can be acquired in Mint condition for less than $100.

3) 1978 Topps Tom Jackson – Tom Jackson, the heart and soul of his Denver Broncos teams, climbs to the high altitudes of our #3 ranking. University of Louisville Head Coach Lee Corso first took a chance offering the undersized Jackson a scholarship. The belief paid off as Jackson was twice named the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. In 1973, the Broncos selected TJ with their 4th round draft choice. Voted the most inspirational player by his teammates six times, the emotional leader of the Orange Crush defense played in two Super Bowls, earned 3 Pro Bowl trips, accumulated 13 sacks and 20 interceptions in his 14 year pro career. After retiring from the Broncos, Jackson’s career reached even greater heights with a 29-year run as studio analyst for ESPN. He teamed with Chris Berman on 7-time Sports Emmy Award winning NFL Countdown and NFL Primetime. The duo showcased some of the best co-host chemistry the sports world has ever seen. In 2015, Jackson was awarded the Pete Rozelle Radio -Television Award. On the football card front, Jackson had to wait five years into his pro career when Topps first recognized him on a football card. 12 copies of the 1978 Topps Tom Jackson rookie have graded out in Gem Mint condition by PSA – each with a value of around $200.


2) 1962 Topps Mike Ditka – Legendary tough guy Mike Ditka commands the #2 all-time position in our rankings. At his hometown University of Pittsburgh, Ditka dominated from his Tight End and Punter position – eventually earning enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame. The Chicago Bears selected Iron Mike with the 5th overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft. His accomplished 5 time, All-Pro career included 427 receptions, 5,812 receiving yards and 43 touchdowns – mind blowing stats for a tight end in his era. As the man who redefined the tight end position, Ditka became the first tight ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Upon retirement, he joined Tom Landry’s coaching staff with the Dallas Cowboys where he remained until being named head coach of the Chicago Bears in 1981. As a coach, he is best remembered for his defensive oriented 1984 Super Bowl Champion team that reflected his personality. Amazingly, Ditka won championships as player, assistant coach and head coach. Following his coaching days, he joined the NFL Live team at NBC and later The NFL Today with CBS. Ditka is also known for work on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown team and radio work for Westwood One. Iron Mike’s 1962 Topps rookie card is one of the most popular football cards of the 1960s. Given the fragile back edges of the 1962 issue, the card is especially difficult to locate in elite condition – PSA has graded 4 Mint copies with one bringing in a record $72,000 at auction in 2017.



1) 1971 Topps Terry Bradshaw – Our countdown culminates with none other than Terry Bradshaw in our #1 ranking. He started his college career at Louisiana Tech as the backup quarterback to Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty fame. The cannon armed Bradshaw stepped into the top role when Robertson quit the team. Bradshaw went on to earn All-American honors and the top overall selection in the 1970 NFL Draft. Early in his playing career, he actually worked as a used car salesman during the off-seasons. It took Bradshaw a few years to hit his stride with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once he did, however, the Steelers developed into one of the greatest teams of all-time with Bradshaw leading them to four Super Bowl championships. Over his 14 year Hall of Fame career, he threw for 27,989 yards and 212 touchdowns. Remarkably, Bradshaw saved his best for the playoffs – he actually only threw for 300+ yards in a game seven times, with two of those coming in the Super Bowl. Upon his retirement as a player, Bradshaw teamed with Verne Lundquist to call games for CBS. He performed so well that in 1990 CBS moved him to The NFL Today. In 1993, Bradshaw jumped to Fox NFL Sunday to team with Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson and James Brown. He remains a key cog on the Fox pre-game show. Bradshaw’s playful spirit and self deprecating acceptance of ribbing about his farm boy nature and lack of big city smarts endears him to fans. He also has developed quite an IMDB acting profile with credits such as The Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit II, Modern Family, Everybody Loves Raymond and Malcolm in the Middle. Similar to his success on the field and in the studio, Bradshaw’s 1971 Topps rookie card is a resounding triumph and one of the most popular football cards ever made. In 2016, a PSA-graded Mint rookie cards fetched $50,000 at auction. Only 3 Bradshaw rookies have ever achieved a PSA Gem Mint grade – but none of those have sold publicly in the last 15 years. If one of those Gem Mint cards ever make it to the market, the selling price could rival the price of a nice home.


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Sal Siino

Sal Siino is a sport media executive with deep experience in content distribution and sports rights negotiations. He has served as SVP, Global Content Distribution & Business Development at WWE; Co-Founder & President/Chief Operating Officer at WeMash; and EVP, Sales, Marketing & Operations at Westwood One. Earlier in his career, Siino practiced law as a Mergers & Acquisitions attorney.

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