The oldest football card is the 1888 N162 Goodwin Champions card of Yale captain Harry Beecher.
Beecher, whose full name was Henry Ward Beecher, played quarterback for the Bulldogs before embarking on a career as a sportswriter.
The N162 set (so designated by Jefferson Burdick in his American Card Catalog beginning in 1939), was a multisport affair, and one that stretched “sport” a bit, at that.
Spanning disciplines from chess to baseball to rowing to, yes, football, Goodwin Champions featured 50 athletes (or participants, at least) in all, with Beecher being the only gridiron guy in the bunch.
The cards were sold as premiums with packages of Old Judge and Gyspy Queen cigarettes, making a direct competitor for Allen & Ginters famous N28 set of baseball cards.
The first-ever sports card set devoted entirely to football was the 1894 Mayo Cut Plug tobacco issue, designated as N302 by Burdick. That issue featured black-and-white photos of 35 Ivy League football players, including a rare John Dunlop (with no name shown) that’s considered by many to be the football equivalent of the legendary T206 Honus Wagner baseball card — one of the Holy Grails of the hobby.
The first football cards to feature a professional player were the black-and-white pasteboard issued in 1926 by the Shotwell Manufacturing Company dedicated to Chicago Bears star back and gridiron legend Red Grange.