By PATRICK DOUGLAS
When I was in high school, I always knew who was coming to town to face my Colorado State Rams. While the team played in the relatively small Western Athletic Conference, you’d occasionally see them host a national superstar.
Halloween 1992 saw me working at a local restaurant cleaning dishes, and while I knew I couldn’t get away to see a then 19-year-old Marshall Faulk and his San Diego State Aztecs play the CSU Rams, it didn’t keep me from visiting the stadium completely.
Carefully monitoring the game on the radio, I ducked out of work during the fourth quarter and made a b-line through the snow to Hughes Stadium, where I stood by the visiting buses waiting for Faulk to come out after the game. There were only one or two others my age waiting for him.
Faulk seemed more mature and polite than most people his age. Since he didn’t have cards yet, I had him sign a newspaper clipping from that day’s Coloradoan. Little did I know that Faulk would go on to have a Hall-of-Fame caliber career with the Colts and Rams, and win the 2000 NFL MVP award.
Most people who look through my autograph collection from the early ’90s will no doubt notice that I had a habit of getting rookie cards and magazine clippings signed.
It was always my intention to get someone’s signature before they were able to really make an impact in the league. I figured players would be less likely to have a ton of fan mail before they started piling up numbers thus they’d be more likely to find the time to respond to my autograph request. Heck, I even sent letters to a few guys while they were still in college.
While I got signatures from hundreds of NFL stars during that time, I never once thought there’d be a chance that I’d have signatures from future Hall of Famers. It’s unfathomable to picture a rookie as someone who will someday be enshrined with the best ever.
Now, nearly 20 years since I began collecting autographs, I’ve found that I did snag a few signatures of sure Hall of Famers while the players were still in their weaning stages.
I can’t say that I sent a letter to Brett Favre before he ever took a snap in Green Bay, but it was close to it.
When then Packer starter Don Majkowski left the game against the Cincinnati Bengals on September 20, 1992, I watched a young Brett Favre take the field and struggle, although he did lead the team to a comeback win.
There was something about Favre that caught my attention during that Bengals game and I sent him a letter the next day. Since he had no Packers cards at the time, I enclosed a pile of his college and Falcons rookie cards to sign.
Less than a month later, I received a response from Favre, consisting of eight signed cards, including a Stadium Club rookie card with a misspelling of “Farve,” that today goes for anywhere between $75 and $150 unsigned.
Admittedly, I’m a little biased when it comes to the Broncos, but I do feel lucky that I got to personally watch the building of an empire first hand while attending training camp in the early-to-mid ’90s. The team is one of the least represented in the Hall of Fame, but there’s no doubt this will change as their players become eligible.
It all started with Shannon Sharpe coming to town as a seventh round draft pick in 1990. I took a liking to him since I was already a huge fan of his brother, Sterling. In fact, I would send Shannon’s cards to Sterling for him to keep and in return, Sterling would sign some of his own cards and send them back to me.
Shannon’s first two seasons were spent in relative obscurity, although I made a point to visit with him as often as I could as he walked the Northern Colorado campus in Greeley during camp. Subsequently, I have a plethora of signed Shannon Sharpe rookie cards from his early days with the team and not so many from his later years when he was less approachable.
Rod Smith was one of those cases where you just knew he was destined for greatness. I remember watching him come off of the free agent bus in 1994 with all of the other dazed and confused, zero-chance-of-making-the-team rookies.
My friend and I noticed No. 19’s ability to snag every pass immediately and we began calling him “Glue” whenever we ran into him during that training camp. He went from walking off of the free agent bus to becoming the only undrafted free agent in NFL history to surpass 10,000 yards. My first signatures from Rod that summer were of signed photographs that I snapped of him and the following year I sent him a newspaper clipping of his first NFL catch, a touchdown in the last seconds against the Redskins, which he returned and signed “Glue.”
Terrell Davis was another low draft pick in the Broncos storied collection with HOF credentials. He made an almost immediate impression during the summer of 1995. As was usually the case for me before a player had a card to sign, I’d find a magazine or newspaper clipping and T.D. was no different. I sent him an article that he wrote for the Denver Post and got it back, signed “To Pat, I hope you enjoy this autographed article.”
Before They Were Stars
I’ve never collected football signatures in hopes that a player would someday become as big as the game itself. I love all of my autographs, even the ones of guys who had one good game, or season, before disappearing from the map forever. But, it’s neat to look back and find signatures from guys like Terrell Owens, Ray Lewis and Kerry Collins, knowing that I got them to sign cards to me before they had really done anything professionally.
When Ray Lewis sent back my cards as a second-year pro, he inexplicably signed them “To: ToPat,” which kind of made me feel like a famous rapper.
Looking at my T.O. signatures, I can’t help but feel special knowing that he signed them right as he was going from No. 15 to No. 81 in an effort to make the 49ers as Jerry Rice’s backup.
It would’ve been nearly impossible to predict the career that Michael Strahan ended up having, but I found him interesting enough to send an autograph request to him as a rookie, and I’m glad I did.
Many of my signatures of guys like Curtis Martin, Drew Bledsoe, Keyshawn Johnson, Tiki Barber, Willie McGinest and Cris Carter were obtained while those players were still learning the X’s and O’s of professional football, and most of them signed rookie cards featuring the players in their college uniforms.
You have to make the decision to sacrifice the possible value of a rookie card and take a chance that you’ll get it back signed. Sometimes you get burned and the card is lost forever, while other times, you’ll have gotten in on a signature before a player gets too big to answer fan mail or discovers the awful Autopen or stamp.
No one can know who is going to end up in the Hall of Fame, and more often than not, the guys who become permanently enshrined, are not the first round draft pick gems, but guys who came out of nowhere.
It’s never too late to start sending out autograph requests to future Hall of Famers disguised as rookies, just keep in mind that even if a guy starts off his professional career as a star, it takes 16 to 18 years for someone to establish himself as a bona fide Hall candidate.
The fun comes in sitting on those signatures and waiting to see where someone’s career is taken.