(If you like depressing sports cards, check out the story of the 1981 Topps Steve McCatty.)

Baseball cards didn’t exist until 1981.

Or, at least they didn’t exist for me. That’s when my mom brought home that first pack of brown Topps mush that I hated at first sight.

But by that time, I was already a veteran football card collector of two seasons. My old shoe box was starting to fill up with the ribbon+football 1979s and the name-in-a-football 1980s.

I didn’t love my football cards, but I understood them. These were the guys who muscled their way across our fuzzy black-and-white TV every Sunday afternoon in the fall, and I knew something about at least a few of them.

And, even then, I knew that Walter Payton was the greatest athlete I had ever seen and maybe ever would see.

1980 Topps Walter Payton

But more important than any of that, my football cards reminded me of my dad.

Now, we were a happy family, and I saw Dad most nights and on the weekends, but it was never enough. He worked all the time and seemed to always be asleep when he was home. It wasn’t until later on that I realized just how little sleep he actually got in those years.

No matter how tired he was, though, Dad was always happy to grab a ball and rough me up for an hour or three whenever he got home. The physical activity was brutal for a chubby kid, but it was fun, and the time together was priceless.

In high school and college, Dad had been an athlete and wanted to be a coach. That didn’t work out, and as adult responsibilities mounted, he stowed away his jerseys and athlete’s heart, exchanging them for a work shirt with his name embroidered on a patch, and for the solemn face of parenthood. He didn’t watch sports, he didn’t talk about sports, and he sure as heck didn’t play sports.

But when I showed that first faint glimmer of interest in football — one of his sports — he latched onto the moment. Before long, our games of catch had turned into scrimmages, and I learned how to run routes against imaginary defenders and how to get down low to wrap up Dad’s legs.

So we’d spend Saturday afternoons and Sunday morning tossing the pigskin in the side yard and then head inside to watch the big boys of the NFL play for real on Sunday afternoon. Back then, it seemed that the Chicago Bears took on the Green Bay Packers two out of every three games, with the Minnesota Vikings thrown in on the third for a little variety, and that was just fine with us. The Bears were our team, after all, with the Pack and Vikes as backups.

1980 Topps Tommy Kramer

As 1980 gave way to 1981, though, the Vikings carried our hopes with them as the only one of our three NFC Central standbys to make it into the playoffs. In the AFC, the Cleveland Browns were sentimental favorites because Dad had grown up watching Jim Brown make all his foes look like foolish children. Besides, they had eventual league MVP Brian Sipe at the helm.

Amazingly, both of those teams had a bye, so we had to wait until the Divisional round to see them in action. That gave us Wild Card weekend to get acquainted with most of the rest of the field.

On December 28, a Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Los Angeles Rams, 34-13. That was something of a disappointment for us because we had rooted hard for the underdog Rams in Super Bowl XIV.

That same day, the Oakland Raiders beat the Houston Oilers, another sentimental favorite. Who didn’t love Earl Campbell and Ken Stabler and Bum Phillips?

So two of our “good guy” teams were gone, but we still had the Vikings and Browns waiting in the wings, and we were sure that at least one of them would make it to the second Sunday of January.

I didn’t realize at the time what folly it is to pull for the Browns, or any team from Cleveland, really, but Dad mumbled something about Minnesota’s many failed Super Bowl attempts in the 1970s.

Of course, that was ancient history to a young kind in 1981, so I let the ominous premonition slide from my mind.

1980 Topps Carl Hairston

It all came rushing back the next weekend, though, when the Philadelphia Eagles throttled the Vikings 31-16 on Saturday. The Vikes actually led 14-7 at halftime but melted under the pressure of the Veterans Stadium crowd and the swarming Philly defense in the second half. Minnesota quarterback Tommy Kramer ended the day with one touchdown and five interceptions, including two each by Herm Edwards and Roynell Young.

It was a dark and ugly game, made all the worse by the actual visuals.

Veterans Stadium was dreary and cold (looking), and the crowd was loud and rowdy.

And, maybe worst of all, the Eagles’ uniforms were dark and dingy, and I imagined an ugly green hue (thanks, black-and-white TV) that reminded me of M*A*S*H, one of the most depressing “sitcoms” of all time.

By that wintry day in very early 1981, I had yet to score my first baseball card, but I had my football cards at my side all throughout the playoff action. There were plenty of Eagles among the stacks, too, like this 1980 Topps Wilbert Montgomery “beauty.”

1980 Topps Wilbert Montgomery

I swear that every last one of them was as miserable as the last, and the combined effect was an oppressive mood suck that made my stomach roll and nearly sent me into a panic to escape the tight confines of our house and the gloom emanating from my nascent collection.

Looking back, I can’t help but think that the swirling combination of disappointment and drab green and hulking humanity tainted my initial impression of the 1981 Topps Steve McCatty card when it popped out of a wax pack a few months later.

It’s an impression that lingers.

But when we went to bed that night, Dad and I vowed that the next day — Sunday — would be different. Surely the Browns could win a home playoff game against a wild card team.

They couldn’t.

The Raiders eeked out a 14-12 victory when running back Mark van Eeghen punched it in from one yard out in the fourth quarter. Chris Bahr kicked the extra point.

And so, with both our teams gone heading into Championship weekend, Dad and I had to recalibrate our rooting strategy.

In the AFC, we both agreed that San Diego Chargers were a more sympathetic pick than the Raiders, and they were potentially a lot more fun to watch. Air Coryell was in full bloom, and primetime seasons by Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Kellen Winslow, and John Jefferson made you think the Chargers might score 100 points some week.

1980 Topps Chuck Muncie

In the NFC, things were a little less clearcut. Dad was a longtime Cowboys detractor, and he couldn’t stomach the thought of another Dallas Super Bowl appearance. They were too flashy, with too many prima donnas.

On the other hand, I loved the Cowboys’ uniforms, and I thought the players were pretty cool, too, even though I hadn’t voiced that opinion to Dad. And I just couldn’t get over the veil of depression that pulled at my soul every time I thought about that Eagles-Vikings game or looked at one of those God-awful Eagles football cards.

So, for maybe the first time ever, Dad and I were at rooting odds. The upside was that at least one of us would see “our” team reach the Super Bowl.

In the early game on Sunday, January 11, Dad got his wish as the Eagles dismantled the Cowboys in Philadelphia by a score of 20-7. In my shoe box, Danny White looked forlornly to his right, and a single tear trickled down one cheek. Next to him, Stan Walters glowered at me from under a hideous, logoless Eagles helmet. “I know what you think of me,” his angst-ridden eyes said.

1980 Topps Stan Walters

The Chargers made a strong run in the second game but came up short, rallying to a 34-27 loss after falling behind the Raiders 21-7 in the first quarter.

Dad and I hardly mentioned the upcoming Super Bowl over the next two weeks. There was too much life to choke down in the span of 14 days to worry about something as frivolous as football.

But all the boys at school were talking about the Big Game, as usual. What wasn’t so usual was that I was able to hang with them in breaking down the teams, more or less. I had weathered the entire bumpy, stomach-jolting ride, after all.

And then, on January 25, I settled down next to Dad with my football cards in hand ready to witness one last bloody battle long after all of my teams had flopped onto the NFL scrap heap.

Dad stuck to his guns and hunkered down to root on the Eagles.

I was in a tough place — I hated the Raiders and the Eagles. Dad always told me that Oakland played “dirty” and, even though I didn’t really know what that meant, it didn’t sound so good.

But, man, one look at those Eagles unis on the TV and those mind-number Eagles football cards, and I knew what I had to do.

So, I squinted my eyes and flipped through my Raiders cards. If you held the thing just right, Dave Pear looked like he might be wearing a Cowboys helmet on his 1980 Topps card.

Same thing for Jim Breech and Dan Pastorini. And Ray Guy, who also looked like a Martian.

1980 Topps Ray Guy

The Raiders were my team. They were my only hope for avoiding the Green Death of an Eagles championship.

And, finally, “my” playoff pick did me right …

In Super Bowl XV in the Superdome, the Raiders once again got off to a hot start, jumping out to a 14-0 lead after the first quarter. They added 10 more in the third and three in the fourth. The Eagles, meanwhile, could muster only 10 points for coach Dick Vermeil.

At the end of the day, Raiders coach Tom Flores and Super Bowl MVP Jim Plunkett brought home the championship for Raiders owner Al Davis.

More importantly for me, they let me put away my army-green Eagles cards for another season.

Dad took his loss in stride and gave me a big hug, as always. Looking back, it’s easy to see that the only reason he got so “into” the 1980 playoffs was to spend time with me.

Really, that’s what everything was always about for us, spending time together. And, I suspect, that’s what’s most important about sports for most fathers and sons.

And who knows? Maybe Dad had a slightly more far-reaching plan in mind, too. If left to wallow in the horror of those 1980 Topps Philadelphia Eagles football cards on my own during that long, cold winter, I might have tossed the whole kaboodle into the garbage.

But with Dad at my side as the playoffs unfolded, I was able to tolerate the gloom long enough to reach the Black-and-Silver lining that eventually helped build my hobby foundation.

Heck, these days, I can almost appreciate the abomination that is the 1980 Topps Ron Jaworski card.

Almost.

1980 Topps Ron Jaworski

(If you like depressing sports cards, check out the story of the 1981 Topps Steve McCatty.)

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