The first-ever use of instant replay in televised sports was a big shock to fans. Seconds after they watched Army quarterback Carl “Rollie” Stichweh fake a handoff and dart into the end zone in the 1963 Army-Navy game, they watched it all over again.
It was confusing. Phones lit up at stations with viewers wondering what was going on. “This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen,” said announcer Lindsay Nelson, “Army did not score again.”
Tony Verna, the CBS director who engineered the feat, got a call seconds later from Dallas Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm. “He said, ‘I just want you know that you changed sports forever,'” Verna said in a 2013 interview with Pacific Standard’s Anna Clark.
Verna died Jan. 18 in Palm Desert, Calif., at the age of 81.
With that one clip, wrote Clark:
Verna helped football become the most popular — and lucrative — televised sport in America. No longer is at-home fandom a matter of squinting into snowy black-and-white screens to catch game-day bulletins. It’s a fantastic, layered, and multi-angled experience — 12 cameras per nationally televised college game, 24 for national championships, 44 for Super Bowls. Broadcasting is now so advanced, stadiums struggle to keep up. These days, you often see the game better when you are not there.
Instant replay even transformed how we think about the physical game. We expect a level of precision that once would have seemed obnoxious. In bounds or out? Holding or not? It’s not enough anymore to get the gist. We analyze replays as if they were the Zapruder film. Everyone is an expert.
The breakthrough that revolutionized television sports wasn’t the work of a team of engineers or the product of a fancy lab. “I knew what I was doing was a totally maverick approach and that I couldn’t go through channels and take it to the CBS Laboratory,” Verna said in an interview years later. “The Lab operated on development funds. I would have had to submit a bunch of memos on what the idea was, why it was needed, and how much money would have to be invested in research, research being the Lab’s bloodline.”
It was the work of a frustrated man. After a pass play, for example, “all I was able to show before I figured out how to do the Instant Replay was a lame, dull shot of the receiver trudging back to the huddle,” he said.
Videotape was new then, and Verna faced two obstacles. First, the equipment was massive — about 1,200 bulky pounds of machinery kept at a CBS videotape center at Grand Central Station in New York. He had it trucked to Philadelphia for the Army-Navy game.
Second, he didn’t have a console to view the tape in the broadcast booth. It was kept in a trailer on a parking lot. And the counter — which could be used to determine when to start and stop a replay — was on the machine. He couldn’t see that either.
But he discovered the tape had two audio tracks, one of which was unused. And he figured that if he could have an engineer generate audible signals on the unused track — one set of tones to tell him the team had broken out of the huddle and a second set when the ball was snapped — he could figure out what was going on on the tape.
The moment of truth: “Tentative is the best word I can use to describe the process that day,” Verna said. “We couldn’t be sure the equipment would work. We couldn’t be sure the system I’d devised would work. So I couldn’t have Lindsey Nelson build the thing up to the audience. We couldn’t even mention the damn thing till it worked. Can you imagine what would’ve happened to the lot of us — the crew, Lindsey, me — if we’d announced this ahead of time and it didn’t work?”
It didn’t work the first six or seven times he tried it on Dec. 7, 1963. “We’d see a good play, and Dick Livingston’s beeps worked, but the picture always came out jumbled or scrambled. It was a mess, and I couldn’t air it.”
Then came the fourth quarter touchdown run, and he and his crew tried it again. “About ten seconds later, we heard the tones and, miracle of miracles, saw clean video. I shouted, “Lindsey, this is it!”
Army lost that game to Navy, quarterbacked by Heisman Trophy legend Roger Staubach, by a score of 21-15. But CBS and sports won big. Verna went on to become a successful producer of major television events, including “Live Aid” in 1985 and Pope John Paul II’s “Prayer for World Peace,” which was watched by 1 billion people.
Verna received the Directors Guild of America lifetime achievement award in 1995.