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The Greatest Football Card Nobody Talks About

The 1990 Pro Set football series may be one of the most error-prone in the history of card collecting. It's chockfull of misspellings, errant and backwards letterings, printing mistakes, issues with stat lines, design-element flaws and image variations. You know that page in People where you have to compare the two celebrity pictures and pick out what’s missing from one of them? That’s what collectors have been doing for years with the 1990 Pro Set set, trying to figure out everything they got wrong.

At some point, probably in a basement somewhere, somebody realized that there was a major problem with card No. 204 in Pro Set’s first series.

The card in question featured New England Patriots free safety Fred Marion.

via Getty Images via Getty Images

Marion played for the Pats when they were helmed by quarterback Doug Flutie and could barely win a game. Their record in 1990, the year the set was released? 1-15. The year before, when the card’s picture was probably taken? 5-11. So as you can imagine, Marion’s card didn’t have much going for it at the time; people weren’t rushing out to card shows and collectible shops searching for “The Fred Marion.” It was, at best, probably worth about $0.05.

Since it would have been impossible for the photograph on the card to have been taken the same year the set came out, we’re going to assume that it was taken during a Patriots/49ers matchup held on October 22, 1989, at San Francisco.

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On first glance, card No. 204 looks like any normal football card of the time. Its borders are red and blue with white lettering, per the Patriots team colors. On the front of the card, Marion (No. 31) is in the process of either attempting to catch a bobbled ball or intercepting a pass -- although that year, he only had two INTs, and per the game’s box score, San Francisco didn’t get picked off a single time that afternoon.

The pass had likely been thrown by either Joe Montana or Steve Young (who both played in the game) to wide-receiver John Taylor (No. 82), who was pretty much out of the play at the moment the picture was taken. Also in the frame is a sideline official, who looks like an extra from Fahrenheit 451, wearing a gaudy red jumpsuit and a white cap, clutching a ball. Also in the far background, blurry but still visible, is a man in a white shirt with his hands on his head, probably cursing Montana or Young’s wayward pass. In short, there’s a lot going on in the photograph; it would’ve been easy for Pro Set's copy editors to miss the issue.

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On second inspection, you can recognize how the combination of an unfortunate angle and less than perfect timing that made this particular card notable; it sticks out like a sore thumb… or some other appendage.

Taylor, who can partially be seen on the left side of the card, is in the process of falling forward. At some point in his downward trajectory, his belt became loose and dangled in the front of his pants, frozen in time. The belt itself is a dark hue, while the buckle-end is a slightly lighter color.

To the naked eye, it looks like wide-receiver John Taylor has let his cartoonishly large penis out to bask in the San Francisco sun -- it was 63 degrees that day, by the way.

The first time I saw the Fred Marion error card, I knew that it was one of the greatest finds of our generation. While Billy Ripken and C3P0 had given us similarly noteworthy cards, it was subtlety and timing that went into 'The Fred Marion' that truly put it over the top.

How can a bizarre sequence of events that results making a player appear to have exposed his abnormally long John Thomas on the front of a football card not be special?

Pro Set must’ve known that it was an issue, because the company quietly corrected the image at some point in the printing process by airbrushing the hanging belt out. And that is where its collectibility comes into play. There doesn’t seem to be that many of the “with-errant-belt-that-could-be-mistaken-for-a-penis” cards on the market -- only a few thousand slipped through the cracks, but that's just a guesstimate.

So let’s talk pricing. Given that the sports card market exists almost primarily on eBay now -- i.e. anybody can price any card however high or low they want to -- all values here should be taken with a grain of salt. At press time, four copies are listed on eBay at the following prices: $61.40, $99.99, $149.97, and $300.00 even. This year alone, the card has sold consistently in the $40-$50 range at auction (these prices are based on completed eBay auctions).

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Which makes me wonder: What’s the end-game regarding buying one of these Fred Marion “with-belt” cards? Is it about owning a great collectible to hold onto for posterity? Might it be speculative -- that the card will increase in value over time? Or is it simply about owning a hilarious dong-shot-looking piece of near-filth? No adult collector in his right mind would buy one to pass down to his son or daughter as a family heirloom, that’s for sure.

Either way, by my estimation, it’s the greatest modern football card ever.

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