The Afternoon Before: Time traveling with Pack Wars

Calm before the Wars

Remember that feeling you had as a kid when you’d rip open a fresh pack of cards, convinced there was some sort of cardboard gold inside? Every once in a while, you’d hit the jackpot: Ken Griffey Jr. grinning at you, or Shaq trying to demolish a backboard. It was the teenage boy version of pulling the handle on a slot machine.

That’s where Pack Wars comes in.

I’d never heard of this concept, but the idea behind Pack Wars is to buy a box, split the packs among three or four people, set some parameters for victory, and then rip them open like they were Christmas presents to see who won. Typically, the winner would then keep all the cards.

My friend Jay is a Pack Wars veteran – he told me some wild story from his teenage years about losing out on a $2,500 autographed jersey card in a crushing defeat.

Jay, our friend Ron and I came up with the idea recently to periodically acquire a box of sports cards – but from like 20 years ago, when both cards and sports were awesome – and have ourselves some Pack Wars.

We settled on a box of 1991 Upper Deck football cards, which we liked for a few reasons: It was the first ever Upper Deck football set, it had a Brett Favre rookie card with a Falcons picture, we knew the majority of the players in the set from Tecmo Super Bowl, and the whole box cost nine dollars on Amazon.

Holograms have come a long way since this

We needed to assign some sort of point system to determine a winner, so we decided to award a point for each Hall of Fame player, while deducting one for checklist cards – who the hell ever wanted to pull a checklist card?

“That’s the worst name I ever heard.”

We also went through the checklist and docked a point for guys we deemed to have terrible names (no offense), such as Freddie Joe Nunn, JoJo Townsell – who reminded me of the video on the right from the Simpsons – and Hart Lee Dykes.

We also docked a point for Dan McGwire, brother of former home run king Mark, who Upper Deck must have thought would be an enormous success. They installed Dan as the No. 1 card in their first set ever, the equivalent of the magical Griffey card, only to see him bust. That rookie class was pretty weak — except for Favre — but they’d have been better off with Ricky Watters or even Alvin Harper in that No. 1 spot. At least Harper won Super Bowls.

In addition to Hall of Famers, we added a point for awesome cards and/or players, such as a Barry Sanders hologram, the Joe Montana triple-exposure card on the cover of the box (Jay landed one of those, pictured below), “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye, Howie Long talking to George Brett on his card for no apparent reason, and Vai Sikahema since we loved how he used to box the goalpost.

Jay with his Montana treasure

After dividing the 36 packs among the three of us, Jay, Ron and I took turns declaring parameters for a five-point bonus in each round, with Ron’s wife, Kelly, settling any disputes. Categories included “most receiving yards listed on the card” – I won with Henry Ellard, who edged Ron’s Tim Brown – and “lowest jersey number,” which Ron won with Warren Moon.

Personally, I tried to make my categories as esoteric as possible. My favorite pack was “craziest backstory,” which I easily won with Esquire profile subject Todd Marinovich, edging Ron’s Lawrence Taylor and my own Eugene Robinson. All three of us are Jews, so we did “player most perceived to be Jewish” – I also took that one with Timm Rosenbach.

When I ran the totals, as it turned out, fake Jew Rosenbach and a Sanders hologram in the last round pushed me over the top. I edged Jay 41-35, with Ron bringing up the rear with 29.

For my good fortune, I won nothing except having had a great time. In a move unheard of 20 years ago, we mostly got rid of the cards, keeping a select few; I have enough random stuff in my place. I kept a few Dan Marino cards, a Sanders hologram and the seven-dollar Favre card, the only card in the whole set worth over a dollar. (Watters came close at 90 cents.)

Among our post-War observations:

1. There were hardly any visible tattoos, leading us to believe either that hadn’t gone into vogue yet in 1991, or the NFL was giving them the Allen Iverson airbrush treatment.

2. The collation left something to be desired. Ron pulled a pack with three checklists – hands down the worst pack in the history of sports cards. He also pulled one with three Andre Reed cards, which only really works out great if you happen to be Andre Reed and can then fancy yourself as the face of the NFL.

The Godforsaken Andre Reed pack
3. There were more pictures than we remembered of guys wearing oxygen masks, which was either a badge of honor or a sign of lousy conditioning.

4. We all agreed the Patriots needed to go back to their old uniform style, and not just for throwback night or whatever.

5. Unlike now, different manufacturers were allowed to make different jerseys. The Bills used Champion, while the Seahawks and Vikings both had their jerseys made by Wilson.

But what we discovered the most is that you can go home again. I loved opening packs and boxes with my dad when I was a kid – I still remember him coming home with a 1989 Fleer box and we hunted for the coveted Griffey rookie card inside. I just assumed that like G.I. Joes or WWF Wrestling Buddies, it was one more thing I enjoyed that went by the wayside as the years continued to peel away.

Even with the same packs we used to open way back in the day, it wasn’t quite the same. How could it be? But it was still cool, and there was actually a certain pressure lifted by knowing we weren’t going to pay for college or whatever with the contents of the packs.

Though I will say this: When I opened one pack and there was Favre in a Falcons uniform sitting on the bench, my heart beat just a little bit faster.

Amid a dozen piles of cardboard and a whole bunch of crinkled-up cellophane, you could make out a direct link to our adolescence. I’d say that’s worth nine bucks a few times a year.

The aftermath


Season record: 6-4-2

Last week: 3-0 – Won with Saints, Titans and Giants, three road teams. In a parity league, I think you can do that if the matchups are right.

Chargers -4 at Broncos – Even with his receivers banged up, Rivers could go nuts against shaky pass defense, even with Champ back.

Bengals +2.5 at Jaguars – I think Cincy has the better rookie QB.

Patriots -9 vs. Jets – The nine points seems like an awful lot, but the Jets are a mess. When Brady and Belichick smell blood, they go for the jugular.


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