Need an example of an autopenned NFL card? Turn back the clock and look to the top … Commish was on it

Autopens — a machine used to replicate a person’s autograph by mechanical means — are typically the tools of politicians, but they’ve also left their mark on the football card world long before Dak Prescott allegedly got into that game. 

In fact, you can turn the clock back to 1991 and 1992 for some textbook examples of certified autograph cards that were “signed” by the mechanical hands of three notable NFL names.

And one, a card that’s not been cataloged as such, is from former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

The commish’s autopenned card came in the second year of the landmark Pro Line releases of 1991 and 1992. They were landmark in that you had a legit shot at a legit auto in every few boxes that first year and were assured of ink in every box by that second year.

The first set has two previously identified autopen offenders — politician and Hall of Famer Jack Kemp and now-Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. 

The early Pro Line sets aren’t without their issues. The real autos those first two years have card backs printed without the standard card’s numbers and are instead crimped with a Certified Authentic NFL seal. After the cards’ makers closed, unsigned sheets have made their way into the public and people have re-created autos with the crimper capability, too.

In the case of the autos you can see in the gallery below — just examples found on a quick eBay search — there are some location variations for where the autographs start but the size and proportions of the letters’ loops, spacing and strokes are all identical. And that’s physically impossible to do more than once, let alone hundreds or thousands of times. Adding to the complexity? The Kemp autopen is actually a pretty good one without the tell-tale signs of constant pressure and rattling/shaking of pen along with pronounced starting and stopping points where the tip of the pen stopped and lifted when finished. (The sloppiness is in part caused by a pen with a blunted tip or one that’s losing ink.)

Autopen use is actually not that prevalent as many companies have witnesses obtain the ink or have agents sign affidavits attesting to the authenticity of the materials returned to the card company. In some instances — see Errict Rhett‘s 1994 Signature Rookies card or the 1997 Genuine Article Roy Rogers — others have signed cards and were caught. (Well, sort of.) In Rhett’s case, there are two distinctly different signatures found on his cards — one signed by a girlfriend (rarer), one signed by him — while the Rogers card is one of those amazing enigmas in the history of the hobby. The autograph would look to be the genuine article except he signed his name “Rodgers” — just the typo reads on the card. (Oops!) Could they be real? Not likely …

Earlier this year, Panini America addressed a number of Takk McKinley autographs that were not signed by the player and offered to replace any of those if requested by collectors. With a high-dollar deal with the Dallas Cowboys rookie QB in Prescott, a fix for the apparently autopenned cards should be coming any time now.

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