Sorting It Out: Football Cards by Matt Gilman

Written by Matt Gilman

More blogs by Matt Gilman

When most are young, they dream of what they will become someday. Some may say they will be a Doctor, others will choose to be a dentist or maybe even an architect. Me, well, I always said I would grow up to be a wide receiver in the NFL. It had nothing to do with the money; it all had to do with my passion for the game of football.

I had my plan in place; I would get good grades in school so I can stay on the teams, end up at Norte Dame to play college ball (it was my favorite college team to watch) and then I would get drafted by the NY Giants. Instead of watching Big Blue from afar, I would be right there at the stadium participating in practices with them and getting myself prepped for game day. Oh I couldn’t wait to grow up!

The problem with dreams, sometimes they don’t pan out the way you want them to despite your best efforts. I didn’t start playing football until youth football in eighth grade, so, I was a bit behind others when entering high school to play. The practices were hot and grueling, but I survived them and tried my hardest, which is what I thought the high school coaches wanted. But, it turned that it wasn’t. They chose the kids with the parents that put money into the school and the ones with the “right” last name who were looking to live out their families legacies even if this no-name kid on the bench was a tad better than them. The opportunities were not given enough to me to showcase what I thought I could do. The only time I would get a chance was when another player got hurt or we had a big lead towards the end of a game. How was I ever supposed to get a chance that way? In my senior year of high school, my team had a comfortable 40 point lead at halftime so I got to go in for a couple plays and boom; I tore my ACL after a cheap shot by the other team who were angry about how the game was going. I couldn’t believe it. My final season of football ended four games into the season and it would turn out that my dream would end that day as well as I never played another snap of football in my life. I didn’t even pursue college after that.

Luckily for me, I always had a positive attitude and moved forward. I ‘looked at the bright side’ as most would say. I wouldn’t get injured again. I could still watch football on Sundays  and had the hobby of collecting football cards to keep me in the game in a different way. This has actually worked for me just fine.  I still get to enjoy the big hits (this covers both cards and the games I watch), the passion of the game and its ups and downs that can happen. Being a NY Giants fan I can tell you I have been through plenty of ups and down and ripping into football packs have resulted in the same.

And it’s because of the paragraphs above you now know why football is my biggest and favorite sport to collect. Baseball comes in second but there still is a big gap between them. So, what comes with collecting so many football cards? The responsibility of having to sort them all; it’s a lot of work and takes a good amount of time to do so.

But, in a world of stress and worries, I can say as a card collector, there is one thing about collecting that can help squash that stress and wash those worries away, it’s called sorting. Believe me, if you haven’t used sorting as a stress relief before, you should! Imagine sitting in a quiet area looking at sport cards, maybe even in-depth at the stats on the back or the minor details of the design, putting them into sections or piles and figuring out how you want these to be displayed afterwards. Taking your time and enjoying every piece of cardboard along the way. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Sorting is something that we all need to do in this hobby and we all have our own ways of doing it. In my newest series, I will walk you through how I do my sorting and hopefully it will give you some tips on how you may want to do yours.

I collect all sports and non-sports cards, so, we’ll be taking a glance at each of those types, with today’s post looking at football cards. Each sport and non-sport have their similarities in how I sort them, but let’s focus on the differences.

Keep in mind you don’t have to sort your football cards like I do, but I am hoping today’s post may inspire some ideas in your mind of how you may want to approach your collection. If you want to see my guide on sorting baseball cards go here.

Before I will even begin a sorting project, I always make sure to have plenty of supplies from Bags Unlimited on hand. I don’t want to go into sorting without enough items to take care of the cards I’m prepared to sort out. I don’t think my wife would be very happy to come to a dining room table covered in cardboard.

So I always grab multiple 3” three D-ring binders and make sure that each has at least 50 9-pocket pages.

Next I always make sure to have a few acrylic 15-card hinged holders. I will discuss what I do with these in a few paragraphs.

I also grab some acrylic 100-card hinged holders.

Of course you got to have some Toploaders on hand. I like these two different sizes. The regular Ultra Pro toploader size holds standard thickness cards while the ‘Super Thick’ Ultra Pro holds cards with up to a 180 pt thickness.

And you can’t use Top Loaders without “penny” sleeves or, Card Sleeves, as they are technically called. At least you shouldn’t go without them unless you like your cards with a scratched surface.

800 ct storage boxes are a must have, as well, in my sorting world. I like to have at least two empty and ready to fill.

Along with its 3200 ct storage counterpart. I try to have at least one of these per sport to make sure I have enough space for what I use them for. We will discuss it below.

Now that we’ve added all of the right pieces together, we have enough supplies to get started.

So, let’s get started!

After doing some trading, eBay buying, pack-busting or maybe finding a surprise in the mail box, I always end up with many stacks of football cards. The picture above is from a variety of things. I opened up some newer products, got a few mail days and even a few surprise cards that were overwhelming to add to the stack. Whether the stack is big or small, it’s better to take care of what you see in front of you before you get too far behind sorting. It can sometimes get a frustrating having to sort so much at once. I kind of let this football pile get too big.

Like I mentioned above, football is my biggest sport to collect. I have many, many sub-piles that can come out of one big pile. This pile alone is sorted into 12 piles but not everything I make into piles is pictured here. Other piles include a Saquon Barkley pile, a college veteran player pile, and a set pile just to name a few more.

Across the top, starting at the left, it’s college football (mainly because I don’t know some of the pro teams these rookies play on sometimes), NFL rookies inserts, Star Players and football inserts.

Second row: starting at the left, Shiny Goods, Team Common Cards, 90’s Cards I set-collect, and NY Giants. You knew the Giants had to have their own section just by reading the opening of this article.

Bottom row has Rodney Hampton, NFL Rookies, Jersey/relic cards and autographs. Why Rodney Hampton?  I will touch on that later in this article.

A lot of these cards will be added to binders, but many others will have a variety of new homes.

Let’s start out with the hits!

First: Let’s take this 2018 Panini Contenders Rookie Ticket(right) Autograph Preview of Kalen Ballage that I pulled from 2018 Playoff football. I first slide the card into a penny sleeve and then slide that into the regular top loader since the card isn’t thick. I always make sure to use a toploader along with my penny sleeve for extra protection. The firm edges of the toploader protect the card corners and also make sure it doesn’t bend easily when you put it into storage.  Using just a penny sleeve could leave it susceptible to damage as it’s only a thin layer of plastic. Those are mainly meant to protect the surface of the card.

Here is the finished product. I would normally tackle the best autographs first to prevent any damage to them and then tackle the lower end guys like Ballage. But, Kalen Ballage showed some flashes this season with the Dolphins and could possibly take more time away from Kenyon Drake next season depending on who the coach is and maybe this card will see some value increase. Speaking of Drake, that game ending trick play touchdown this season vs the Patriots…..WOW! I just had to throw that in there.

Up next is this 2018 Obsidian relic card of possible OROY Baker Mayfield. Cleveland Brown fans rejoice!! I think you have found your quarterback finally. Normally I would stick a thick relic card in a 15 ct hinged box but I felt this Baker was safe to attempt and I was right. With thinner variety of relics, I would have penny sleeved it and placed it into a toploader regardless.

Just like with the autograph, you first slide the relic card-carefully-into the penny sleeve than slide that into the thick toploader.

Here’s the final product. Well protected from the elements with the rigid edges of the toploader. Looks good enough to display!

Here they are side by side. Notice the differences in thickness of the cards and the holders. I also wanted to point out how much thicker the ridges are around the relic card holders. That’s the kind of protection thick cards need.

I don’t really have a lot of room for displaying cards though, so what I do is use the 3200 count boxes and put the relics and autographs in them by sport. It makes for easy access to grab the box out and search for hits. In 2019 I plan on putting all of my hits, by team, in these boxes for my ease of trading with others or for researching certain players that may have turned out to be superstars like the possible Ballage above.

Now that we are done with the easy work, it’s time to for the challenging part, binder-ing. Most of my cards go into binders.

Each of the following has their own respected binder and some of these have multiple binders of each. I have been collecting football cards since 1995; just imagine that.

I am a huge 90’s collector, especially when it comes to the inserts in the late 90’s; 1995-1999 are my main years of collecting them. I will occasionally dig back to 1994 but not very often. These inserts bring back my beginnings-nostalgia, they were some of the coolest cards on the market and many hold their value to this day. A lot of the cards from then, including base cards, I have started to chase down and began building sets of. I am always looking for help towards completing those.  In 2019 I am hoping to complete a good portion of these sets and parallel sets for football. It’s my goal for the year! My first two sets to complete are the 1995 Pinnacle Clear Shots football (Steve Young on top) and the 1996 Topps Broadways Review (under Steve Young).

I have a binder specifically for shiny cards. Anything that’s a refractor from Topps Chrome or Panini Prizm or, in some cases, even Panini Optic goes right in this binder unless it’s a specified star player that I put in a different pile. A lot of collectors, without me explaining why, will understand why I collect the shiny stuff all in one binder.

Football inserts are all tossed into the same binder unless they are NY Giants, star players, 90’s set needs, or cards valued roughly at $20 or more.  I do something a bit different with these. In 2019, I plan on working differently with football inserts and will start to sort them by team, finally after 20 years of placing them into binders this way. I need to be even more organized than I already am so it makes my searching much easier. I also plan on switching things up on where I store them.

Football Rookie cards get their own home as well in a binder. I have been doing this since the beginning of collecting them and football rookies are a main part of my collecting besides NY Giants. Rookie cards always hold their value in this hobby and are the most sought after football cards.

With the rookie cards, I sort them by team. This was the only sport I have done this with since the beginning of collecting them. I used to also use a notebook to keep track of every card in the binders but found it to be time consuming especially as I got older. I normally have a lot more football rookies than this in a stack at one time, but sometimes I just have these weaker stacks with not so many. This one only has three teams but there is plenty of star power here and they will all go into the binders like this. No white gloves needed! And if you don’t get that, it’s a bad O.J. Simpson pun.

Okay, Okay, I am sure I will hear it from you guys when you read this. “Why do you separate my rookie parallels and inserts from the base rookies?” Well, I just do. Okay? The rookies above are what I consider to be “true rookie” cards, meaning those are the rookie cards. Rookie inserts and parallels I consider to be non-rookie cards despite the logo as they are not part of the base. It’s weird, I know. But, I have done this forever and don’t plan on changing my theory. However, I would like to tackle this binder in 2019 and sort these by team. That would be kind of nice to have organized instead of being just tossed in.

There is a third level when it comes to my football rookie card sorting, players still in college uniforms. Since a lot of these products are released either pre-draft or just after, I don’t usually have a list of who went where just yet and I need a place to put these guys somewhere so that they all end up in a binder together. Unlike veteran players in college uniforms, the rookies hold more value, so I put them into a binder instead of where I put the veterans. I will discuss where they go towards the end of the article.

The Gggggggmen! I have always collected my favorite team, but not as heavily until recent years when it basically has become the main point of collecting not only football cards, but cards in general. I break my NY Giant stacks down into four piles. Saquon Barkley (more on this stud RB soon as there wasn’t any in this stack), Rodney Hampton (more on him soon as well), rookies and players. This is how I separate things in binders.

The players I separate by player and place them that way in the binder. I really need to get myself some binder separators for these. I will have to check out Bags Unlimited to see if they offer them.

I put Eli first in the Giants binder since he is my All-Time favorite Giants QB, followed by Kerry Collins, then Phil Simms. Say what you want about Eli, but he is a Hall Of Famer. He beat THE Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl. Holds many records and is pretty far up on the All-Time list in many categories. Not to mention is an Iron Man as he has never missed a start (besides the one that the coach held him out on. But that wasn’t the brightest of coaches so I don’t count that one) and he has a solid playoff record when they actually get in. Give me playoff Eli any day.

The rest of the Giants players follow him afterwards in no particular order. Since I add so many Giants at one time, I try to put an extra page in between each player that way it will be ready for me the next time I have to put cards away.

For some reason or another, I grew up a huge Rodney Hampton fan. I loved watching him run, reading his stats on cards and finally collecting him. I have close to 70% of all Rodney Hampton cards in existance. That’s a Super Player Collection I have by the way and will be even bigger once I can add items such as Starting Lineups, autograph photos and other memorabilia. Rodney also played in an era I loved to collect, the 90’s. So, I get all of the nostalgia from collecting him along with the great looking and sometimes rare inserts.

Next up, Saquon Barkley. Since a good portion of his cards fall under my $20 or more value point of non-bindering, I I put all of his cards in penny sleeves first, then into toploaders. It’s the same thing I do with the valuable rookie cards and inserts. The only difference, I give Saquon his own section in a box. He is a NY Giant and is possibly the next coming of Barry Sanders. I know that’s a huge shoe to fill or even compare him to, but I recently watched films for both and saw a lot of similarities. I guess the most common one is making a poor offensive line look good and the fact they both have quick juke feet. However, honestly, as much as I love Saquon and having him on my Giants, I just don’t truthfully see another Barry Sanders. That guy was on another level. I haven’t ever seen a running back go back ten yards then take it to the house and I doubt we ever will. It’s a different game today.

Onto Trading Card Storage Boxes

I used to use a lot of index cards for my dividing in card boxes but recently cut back on using them as over time they seem to fold over or lose the writing I once had on them. That’s why I recently gave Bags Unlimited line of trading card box dividers and spacers a try and now need I need to upgrade my entire collection after seeing how impressive they are. They are very sturdy and don’t fold and bend like the index cards do.

These tall dividers are for standing upright in the 3200 count boxes. I use a lot of these types of boxes for players and my hits and soon they will come in even handier when I add new players to the boxes and actually put my hits by team.

And these horizontal ones are for the 800 count boxes that are not as deep as the 3200 ct ones. These I would mainly use for non-sport or some less valuable sets. I will show examples of these in a future article.

I first begin to put the cards by team so they are ready to be placed into the boxes. I try to keep the piles neat so they don’t fall on each other but that isn’t always the case.

I then start with a team in the back for each row,

Then place the card divider in front of each team row and put the next team in front of it such as I did here. Of course with having collected since the mid 90’s, I have multiples of these boxes now with some of the teams filling up a single row and more. That’s when the indexing of teams becomes even more important.

Now I sort the players by player and get them ready to be placed into the box just like the team ones.

Except these three players. I don’t collect these guys per say, but they are legends of the game have some of the most valuable cards in the NFL so I try to binder these guys instead to give them extra protection. So, Tom Brady (despite my strong dislike but respect for the guy), Brett Favre and Peyton Manning get the VIP treatment from my player stacks.

As for the rest of the players, I start with the players with one in each row. Then add a card divider with the players name to each before adding the next player in the front.

The next two parts of my sorting project goes in the 800 count boxes. I only need two of these boxes for this. 

College football cards that are non-rookies, non-NY Giants, non-inserts and non-star players go into one of these boxes, not sorted in any fashion; just tossed in there. Not sure if I will improve that method down the road or not.

My trade pile is also placed in the 800 count boxes. I turn the index cards sideways (not sure if I will use the fancy dividers for just a card trade box) and label in front of each section of cards for who I am sending them to. This makes it so I won’t have to look all over the house for my trade bait for my usual trading buddies.


Card Set Case – Holds 100 cards. Hinged Case with Snap Closure. Inside base dimensions: 3-1/2 x 2-5/8 x 1-5/8″ deep; 1/8″ deep snap closed lid. Cards stack horizontally in case. Square base corners.

The final thing I haven’t mentioned yet, is I take the 100 count plastic hinged boxes and use those to store smaller sets in or sets that are a tad more valuable. I didn’t have any set examples in this stack but most sets today are made up of 100 cards or less. I find these to be more efficient to use because they don’t take up as much space a one of the white boxes do and they stack nicely on a bookshelf.

That does it today for my football card sorting. I hope there was something above that will give you an idea on how you may want to sort your collection or maybe spark an interesting idea for yourself. Up next I will be breaking down how I collect and sort hockey cards. Hockey isn’t one of my bigger sports but it is actually the one that kicked off my collecting. We saw many levels on how I sort football cards and the depth there is to it, but we will see how simple I do things as well and that will come along with hockey card sorting.

Til next time, keep on collecting!

Matt G