Along with the annual rites of passage—fantasy football leagues, tailgating, armchair quarterbacking, and Monday Night Football—comes renewed excitement for gridiron collectibles. Here’s a spotlight on the ins and outs of one of football’s flashiest showpieces—the championship ring.
First team-issued by the Cleveland Browns in 1950, championship rings have always been the great equalizer. Every player, coach, and executive wants one, yet only a limited number will ever bring one home. Of those who do, some wear their rings with pride for many years; others prefer to showcase them for display. Still others, thankfully for collectors, part with their cherished relics either privately or at public auction.
Early rings often were sleek, simple, and small, with their hallmark being a subdued diamond in the center. Over time, however, design styles have evolved. Rings these days, like American fast food, are super-sized. Take, for example, the Cowboys championship rings of the 1990s, which weighed in at around 80 grams apiece, with enough diamonds to make Marilyn Monroe’s head spin.
Understandably, then, today’s recipients may be more willing to kiss their championship rings goodbye than those in days of yore. After all, the raw value of the materials alone can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Fortunately for collectors on a budget, championship rings come in all shapes, sizes, and categories. The most prevalent and affordable are “salesman’s sample” rings. This means the jewelry company that manufactured a particular team’s ring also produced a limited number of additional examples, without precious stones and not necessarily in the same gold content, to be used as marketing tools.
Salespersons utilized these sample rings as visual aids to entice subsequent orders from other sports franchises, as well as from impressionable college and high-school students deciding which company will make their graduation rings.
The best ways to identify such samples are by the identification codes engraved inside their bands, the cubic zirconium stones instead of diamonds, and the price. (If you see one of Joe Montana’s 49ers rings on sale somewhere for a few thousand dollars, chances are it’s not the actual one bestowed upon him a few weeks after connecting with Dwight Clark in the end zone.)
Historically, players’ rings are the most valuable and desirable. Some, like Hall of Famer Paul Hornung’s ring from the Green Bay Packers’ 1965 world championship, can reach more than $20,000 or more at auction based on their football significance. The rings of equipment managers, scouts, or front-office executives are also highly sought-after. Even if the recipient’s name is unfamiliar, the event for which the ring was awarded is the source of its allure.
Another issue to consider with championship rings, as with any type of serious collecting, is preservation. Condition flaws can range from worn-down lettering to small surface nicks, or even some build-up in the recesses of the shanks (the ornate side panels of the band). Pristine examples will shine as brightly as the day they were manufactured. The relief designs and raised lettering will stand tall with sharp edges, and all original stones will be intact.
According to expert Irv Lerner—or “The Ring Man,” as he’s known in the sports hobby—selection ultimately comes down to personal preferences. “Some people want to buy an older ring because it’s from the year they were born or from a game they went to,” Lerner says. “Others follow a particular team. There are also the factors of looks and artistic appeal. Everything comes into play.”
Above all else, Lerner says, the most important consideration for a beginning collector is to buy from a reliable source with a good track record. As a collector becomes more familiar with the genre of championship rings, he or she will come to learn the distinguishing characteristics and proper markings of certain models.
Now, if NFL rings aren’t your cup of tea, perhaps other alternatives will suit your fancy. There’s the American Football League of the 1950s and 1960s, or the upstart World Football League of the 1970s. Rings from these leagues typically command lower prices than their NFL counterparts, yet are still highly regarded for their rarity. College football rings, too, have their market, especially examples from major Division-I conferences.
Lastly, if you plan to wear your prized purchase, don’t forget to find out the ring’s size. Otherwise, you may have a feeling of buyer’s remorse as you realize that you can fit two of your fingers inside the cavernous band previously filled by a 350-pound lineman’s pinkie.
An example of the sleek early designs from the pre-Super Bowl era, this championship ring was given to long-time Detroit Lions equipment manager Roy “Friday” Macklem upon the team’s 1952 NFL championship.
The jewelry company Jostens used this 1970 Baltimore Colts championship ring as a salesmans sample modeled on the actual ring of the legendary Johnny Unitas.
Dallas Cowboys defensive back Larry Brown received this diamond-studded championship ring following his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXX.