Once upon a time, you could have owned a Walter Payton rookie card for about the same price you would have paid for a Bob Horner rookie card.

Maybe even less.

Don’t believe me? Well, I don’t have much in the way of proof other than this story from a card show I attended in about 1984 …

Back in those days, Horner was still young and still basking in the glory of his early home run barrages, and the hobby was really starting to cook.

Well, the baseball end of the hobby was, at any rate. Football, basketball, and hockey, not so much.

So, anyway, at this particular show at our local big-city convention center, there were plenty of Horner rookie cards up for sale, all of them in thick plastic holders and all of them under the glass of dealer showcases.

The going rate started at $3 and ranged upward to $5 and maybe even a bit beyond.

Meanwhile, over in a corner of the showroom, one hapless dealer had decided to devote about half of his space to *gasp* football cards.

They were all pretty dirt-cheap when compared to their baseball brethren, but one hunk of gridiron cardboard really stood out to me: a complete set of 1976 Topps football cards, complete with a Walter Payton rookie card in a semirigid holder, the only card afforded such royal treatment.

The asking price for the set? Ten bucks.

For the whole thing.

And, at least in my memory, the Payton was in really nice shape.

And, that was the asking price. If there’s one thing I learned from a decade of wandering card shows like a lost puppy, it’s that $5 of real, live cash in the sweaty little palm of a rabid young collector is usually enough to buy a “ten dollar” card.

But …

I didn’t buy that Payton and his set-mates. Luckily, I didn’t buy a Horner RC, either. More than likely, I plunked down my pennies to add another Pete Rose or Mike Schmidt to my collection.

Totally worth it, of course, but I really do wish I had the Sweetness card now.

Because now, well, a Walter Payton rookie card is something that commands the sort of price you might expect from the greatest running back to ever don the shoulder pads (right, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Curtis Dickey … but I’m a 1980s Bears homer and always will be).

And you know what’s really great about that 1976 Topps Walter Payton card that you covet (or that I covet, at least)?

It’s not the only Walter Payton rookie card out there!

Say what?

It’s true.

Once again, I sense your disbelief, so let’s get into the meat of this thing, finally.

What follows, then, is the complete rundown of Walter Payton rookie cards, along with approximate values, per actual recent sales as of September 2022.

(Note: The following sections contain affiliate links to eBay and Amazon listings for the cards being discussed.)

1976 Coke Bears Discs Walter Payton Rookie Card

1976 Coke Bears Discs Walter Payton Rookie Card

In the mid-1970s, the still-fledgling hobby suddenly became awash in little paper-cardboard “discs” featuring baseball players and, to a lesser extent, players from other sports.

Isaly discs, Crane discs, Burger Chef discs, Carousel (snack bar) discs … it seemed like every food product was fair game.

And all of these little circles of sports-card fun looked pretty much the same — black-and-white player image fading into a white background at the margins, colorful enclosing circular border around the edge of the disc, player information in typeface around the player’s head, company name up top, and additional company advertising on the back of the disc.

The more of these discs you saw, the more apparent it became, too, that the players weren’t sporting any team logos on their hats or helmets (if they were wearing any).

So, what gave?

Well, what gave was that a company called Michael Schechter Associates, or MSA, landed contracts with a slew of food companies of all ilk to produce baseball cards (or discs, as the case may have been) to be included as premiums with and/or advertising for the various foodstuffs being offered up.

In order to include player likenesses, MSA also had to land contracts with each sport’s players’ union, and you’ll see those union logos on the disc fronts, too.

What you generally won’t see, though, is the actual league logo, meaning MSA likely did not have permission to use team logos — hence the hatless heads and airbrushed caps.

So … what does all of this have to do with Walter Payton rookie cards?

Well, as luck would have it, MSA produced a 22-disc set featuring members of the Chicago Bears for Coca-Cola in 1976, just in time to sweep in a certain young running back.

In this case, each disc was attached to a small ring made of the same thin carboard, which would hang from the neck of a 16-ounce glass Coke bottle in the old eight-pack cartons that used to swallow an entire grocery-store aisle.

The disc could be separated from the tab by tearing them apart along a perforated arc.

One curious bit here, at least as it relates to MSA issues, is that these Chicago discs do flash the Bears logo. So, either MSA ponied up for an NFL license in this case, made some side deal with the Bears somehow, or just flouted the rules and asked for forgiveness (or not) later.

Whatever the case, you don’t see a lot of these Walter Payton “rookie discs” on the market these days, and the version with the tab is somewhat more scarce than the disc alone.

The ones that do come up for sale, though, tend to be in pretty good condition: expect to pay $700 or more for a “tabbed” version in PSA 9 and closer to $900 for a “perfect 10.”

Without the tabs, the prices drop a bit: most recent sales have been for PSA 10 copies in the $600-700 range.

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1976 Crane Discs Walter Payton Rookie Card

1976 Crane Discs Walter Payton Rookie Card

So, if this Crane disc looks somewhat familiar, maybe it’s because you washed your potato chips down with a bottle of Coke back in 1976.

And maybe you snagged a Walter Payton rookie disc from both product purchases.

And, also maybe … maybe you noticed that the two discs featured the same exact photo of the Sprouting Sweetness.

Or, the other option is that you just read that section about the Coke Payton disc there in the section up above this one and were able to maintain the mental image for more than a few seconds.

Either way, you’re right — these discs are exactly the same, modulo the color band, the company name, the rightly missing Bears logo on the Crane version, and the with-tab option the Coke version offers.

And then there’s this — these Cranes were pretty much everywhere. So you can expect lower prices: somewhere from $50-150 for a PSA 9 and more like $250-300 for a PSA 10.

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1976 Saga Discs Walter Payton Rookie Card

1976 Saga Discs Walter Payton Rookie Card

The Saga discs, on the other hand, were not everywhere. In fact, they were hardly anywhere … or at least they’re hardly anywhere today.

In fact, the backs of these things say “Saga Philadelphia School District,” so you can pretty much narrow down where you might have found them back in the Bicentennial year.

Like the other discs, the Sagas pretty much only come on the market in top shape, with all four sold from 2018 through the fall of 2021 showing up in PSA 10. That last disc sold for a heavy $1500.

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1976 Topps Walter Payton Rookie Card (#148)

1976 Topps Walter Payton rookie card

Now, with all those appetizers under our belts, we arrive at the main course of Walter Payton rookie cards, the one you came here expecting to read about in the first place.

Payton himself was a big name in the sport before his first pro touch. After all, he was a high-profile first-round pick (4th overall) in the 1975 NFL Draft, and he managed a respectable 679 yards and seven touchdowns for the Chicago Bears in his first season.

All that was reflected on that back of his RC the next year …

1976 Topps Walter Payton Rookie Card back

Then, while that 1976 Topps rookie card was still fresh, still popping out of live wax packs, Payton popped his first 1000-yard season. That fall, he rushed for 1390 ticks and scored 13 TDs before really going off in 1977 — an NFL-leading 1852 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, which landed him the NFL MVP award.

Unbelievably, it would be the only time Sweetness led the league in rushing yardage, though he did pace the NFL in total yards in both 1977 and 1978.

Statistical league leader or not, Payton was a bona fide superstar by the end of his third season, and it didn’t take long for folks to start talking about him as an all-time great.

The man more than held up his end of the bargain, clicking off All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors like seconds on a game clock leading up to the two-minute warning. The only thing really holding back Payton’s legacy was a generally moribund Bears team that made the playoffs just twice in his first nine seasons.

But, just months after Payton broke Jim Brown’s all-time record for career rushing yards the Bears were finally clicking, making it all the way to the NFC Championship game before falling to the San Francisco 49ers. The next year, of course, the Bears put together one of the most dominant seasons in NFL history.

By the, Payton’s legacy in the game had long been cemented, though 1551 yards rushing and a second-place MVP finish didn’t hurt any.

For as great as Payton was in the 1970s and 1980s, though, and for as much as the football world (rightly) idolized him, none of that did a whole lot for the profile of Sweetness football cards.

It wasn’t just Payton, either — the gridiron hobby lagged far, far behind baseball for decades in terms of overall popularity and card prices, and even a general collecting boom couldn’t fix that overnight.

What did start to move the needle for football, though, was the high-profile budding of Joe Montana’s legend with the San Francisco 49ers and then the amazing rookie class of 1983, which led to the amazing rookie-card class of 1984: Dan Marino, John Elway, Eric Dickerson.

Payton was the pre-eminent active NFL legend as the hobby began to percolate, and we all scrambled to bring his “old” cards into the limelight. His 1976 Topps RC became a familiar and iconic sight as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, and prices began to creep upwards.

You’d have been hard-pressed to buy a 1976 Topps football set in nice condition for ten bucks by 1990, in other words.

But out of the limelight after his retirement following the 1987 season, Payton’s cards didn’t receive any direct boosts from his play on the field (there was none) and only a mild perturbation with his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in 1993.

Mostly, the continued value increases for Payton’s RC have ridden the overall rising tide of the football card market in the ensuing decades.

You can clearly see this trend by looking at actual sales prices for this classic card over the last few years: heading into the pandemic, PSA 8 copies of the Payton RC were selling for around $400 a pop. By the time the Super Bowl was played in February of 2021, it was topping $2000.

By September of 2022, the card had settled into the $1000-1500 range.

If you bump up the condition to PSA 9, you’ll be staring at price tags north of $5000.

And if you’re aiming for a perfect “10”? Better have a cool hundred grand or more stashed away to support your Sweetness tooth.

No matter how you look at it, that Walter Payton rookie card has come a long way from its days lurking in the dark corners of a baseball card show, just hoping for a little daylight, a hole to bust through. And, though we may have missed the stutter-step-and-stiff-arm explosion, Payton did, indeed break through, and now streaks eternally across the hobby firmament.

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1976 Topps Walter Payton Rookie Card PSA 8

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