For a brief period, at the very zenith of the idiotic trading card boom of the 1990s, Pro Set was a big deal. Founded by an ambitious polar bear-shaped man with the escaped-from-a-Charles-Portis-novel name of Ludwell Denny, the company was briefly the NFL’s official trading card brand and a legitimate innovator in the field. The sets were rigorously updated with rookies and pop-up prospects—the company owned its own printing presses, a unique and not-inexpensive step—the photos were notably better than the Man Standing In Helmet norm at Topps, and Pro Set was an early adapter when it came to putting autographed cards into its product, which it did with some autos of Lawrence Taylor in the 1991 set. By 1992, the company was bankrupt and owed NFL Properties $666,185 in royalties. By 1994 the company was all the way out of business, and two NFL Properties executives were under investigation for their hugely profitable personal investments in the company.
The combination of frantic overproduction, misplaced marketing priorities, and pure wacky hubris were not unique to that moment in either the NFL or the card business, although Pro Set was always a little bit weirder than its competitors. Early sets featured cards for Payne Stewart and Santa Claus alongside all the Mike Tomczaks and Gerald Riggses, and Denny made a limited-edition promotional card for himself that printed alongside the 1990 set. He’s credited as the head coach of the New York Giants and appears on the front in a photoshopped image that shows him ready to lead the team out of the tunnel. The back text jokingly claims that he was hired and then fired after a travel scam, credits him with owning “thousands of telephones,” and concludes with a quote: “Being on the right track is not necessarily a ticket to success. If you just sit there, you’ll get run over.” He mostly gave them out to friends and people in the industry; you can buy one on eBay for just under $5,000, including shipping.
I was hoping for one of the weird short-printed cards that defined Peak Pro Set for me when I was a kid when Dom Cosentino and I ripped a pack of 1991 Pro Set Series 2 cards, but we wound up with something more representative of both what the product was actually like and why the trading card boom was always going to bust in time. Series 2 is a set heavy on updates and late additions, and Dom and I were greeted by a bunch of rectangular offensive linemen, kick returners who had evinced some fleeting promise, and a bunch of then-recent sixth-round draft picks. This is great for those who enjoy watching two adult men chew gum, and there were a few memorable Guys studded throughout, but overall the pack featured a lot more Guys than Dudes. But.
But there was one card, an end-of-the-set insert featuring a grinning Paul Tagliabue standing by the (fucking) Berlin Wall with a tiny pickax in his hand, that delivered on the Pro Set Experience I was hoping for. Here was a truly un-collectable collectable, a photo of a lawyer in a suit posing near the crumbling symbol of the Cold War on the occasion of a NFL exhibition game in Berlin. The back text explains what the front of the card shows in the object-free scoutese that the set favored: “NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue peered through historic Berlin Wall on trip to Germany in August, 1990... Wall, which had served as barrier between East and West Berlin, was opened up in late 1989, leading to reunification of Germany... Tagliabue expanded American Bowl international series to include Germany this year.”
It’s an utterly doofy monument to both the NFL’s goofball grandiosity and Pro Set’s retrospectively poignant belief that every card that could be made, should be made. There’s no Guy to Remember on it, really, and it’s as plainly useless a card as I can imagine. And yet it still delivered the same feeling that ripping a pack always does—a little elemental tingle at the back of the mind, a brief neutral-to-happy bit of recognition, a gaudy, dusty neon sign reading Here It Is that lights up and then turns back off.