Football visionary: Father of replay recalls how it began 50 years ago

On Dec. 7, 1963, fans glued to the annual Army-Navy game on CBS watched Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh score on a one-yard touchdown run with 6:19 left in the fourth quarter to cut the Navy lead to 21-13.

Seconds later, to the bewilderment of most of the millions watching at home — Army-Navy then was what the Super Bowl is now — they saw him do it again.

This was the birth of instant replay, the brainchild of up-and-coming 30-year-old producer Tony Verna. And it was a concept so foreign to viewers, who traditionally had to wait much longer to see a play again if they saw it at all, that play-by-play announcer Lindsey Nelson had to clarify to the audience that West Point hadn’t scored a second touchdown (though Stichweh would score on a two-point conversion to make it 21-15 on the next play).

“Terry Brennan, who was my color analyst, said he almost fell off his stool when it came back; he never expected to see the play again,” Verna, now 80, said of the first instant replay in an interview with FOX Sports this week.

“And Lindsey responded to the surprise by saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Army has not scored again.’ It sounded like the man had lost his mind, but you’ve got to remember and put into perspective all that was going on. He just wanted to make it clear.”

These days, a half-century after its first use, instant replay is omnipresent in televised sports, and for most, it’s hard to imagine a world without it.

The technology Verna used, a clunky, unreliable Ampex 1000 with three tape heads, is long since obsolete, replaced by newer, faster, more intuitive, user-friendly devices. And the viewer experience has seen even greater change, with slow-motion, freeze frames and split screens now the norm.

Verna’s creation is now used in officiating in most professional leagues, and it has changed the way announcers call games over the last five decades — with analysts able to visually highlight the finer points of the action, rather than simply describe it. But once upon a time, immediate playback was the hot new thing, and it was only because Verna had the nerve to try it.

“The reason for any invention is a need, and I needed something to improve my telecasting, because people at home were still not getting the full value, the cause and effect of a play, or to watch it from another angle,” Verna said. “But to show a play 10 or 15 minutes later didn’t mean anything. It had to be instant, it had to be right after the play, otherwise, you couldn’t relate to it.”

Verna’s initial thought was to unveil instant replay at the 1963 NFL championship game, but that option was off the table because NBC had the rights to that year’s game. Instead, he chose to try it at Army-Navy, a game that had been postponed for a week by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and featured a Heisman-winning quarterback in Roger Staubach.

By that point, Verna had developed a method of identifying points on a tape using sound, putting tones on the tape’s sound track that would tell him the approximate location of the play he wanted to re-air. The only challenge from there was getting all three tape heads in sync so he could be certain he was showing the correct replay, and that it was being clearly displayed to the viewer.

Verna got permission to bring in a half-ton tape machine from CBS’ control room in Grand Central Station for the game at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia — a challenge that, he admits, was actually simplified by the game’s postponement — and after struggling to get the three tape heads in showing the same output for most of the game, Verna finally had success during Stichweh’s final score.

“The middle head of the three would continue to show ‘I Love Lucy,’ which was the old tape that I was given to record over, so you’d see Roger Staubach, maybe, in my control room, and then you’d see Lucy and Desi in the middle, and then in the bottom, you’d see the players,” Verna said.

“It was very disconcerting, but finally in the second half, I got all three heads stabilized and I heard my (signaling) beeps come back with the frequency I needed. … I was dependent on those audio signals to tell me what was happening on the tape, and finally I got one in sync, and I heard it and I said to Lindsey, ‘This is it.’”

The news that a replay was coming wasn’t a complete shock to Nelson, who had been informed of the possibility on the cab ride to the game, but it was to virtually everyone else. Bill McPhail, the head of CBS Sports at the time, didn’t want to promote the gimmick given the solemnity of the game so soon after JFK’s death, so the fans were unaware of exactly what they were seeing.

“In those days there was no slow-motion and it was just in black and white, and you couldn’t tell the difference between tape and live at all,” Verna said. “So when the replay came back, it came back like a freight train.”

However, unfamiliarity didn’t keep viewers from enjoying the new technology’s debut, and the positive response to the first instant replay was almost immediate.

“I was still on the air, and Tex Schramm, who was then the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, called me in the truck — he was the guy that hired me as a kid at CBS — and he said, ‘Verna, you don’t know what you’ve done; this is going to be great for officiating,’ which I hadn’t thought of,” Verna said.

“When that call came in, I had to say, ‘Tex, I can’t talk to you right now, I’ve got a hell of a game going on,’ but that was the first indication that it was a success.”

Soon after, McPhail called telling Verna that he would have to share his development with the rest of CBS’ directors and producers — a sign Verna took to mean that his creation had instantly become a necessity. He also heard from the newsroom at CBS, which lamented that Verna’s technology wasn’t available two weeks earlier, when it took them 11 minutes to turn around video of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.

On the cab ride home from the stadium, Nelson, the man who called TV’s first instant replay also put it all in perspective.

“Lindsey said to me, ‘You know, Tony, what you’ve done today is non-retractable,’” Verna recalled. “In other words, people are going to expect instant replays in games and it’s never going to go away, because it fits the sport, no matter what it is, to see it again and get some perspective.”

Verna used instant replay again at the Cotton Bowl between No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Navy on Jan. 1 — Navy lost and didn’t play in another bowl game until 1978 — and it was used during the Triple Crown, as well as the the 1964 Major League Baseball season, opening the floodgates to replay’s use across the sports landscape.

“I used to do Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese’s game of the week, and (replay) allowed Dizzy to shut up,” Verna joked. “He would always talk about what you couldn’t see at home, thinking that he was giving people a boost in the viewing, but all he was doing was confusing people. Now that was taken care of.”

Verna got out of sports television in his late 40s and went on to find success in other ventures, including the production of “Live Aid” in 1985 and Pope John Paul II’s "A Prayer for World Peace" in 1987. And though he’s been out of producing for some time now, Verna continues to innovate as he ages, and has been granted recent patents on Instant Footballer and Talking Replays.

But still — despite all of the advancements made in TV production as well as his own career in the decades since Dec. 7, 1963 — Verna’s name is and will always be synonymous with that first instant replay.

“Without being braggadocio, I was given a certain ability, and I was able to use that somehow to help people in a certain way,” Verna said. “The idea of being able to watch a play again instantly is now embedded deeply into the collective unconsciousness of the viewers.

“The improvements, of course, happened, and they were expected to happen, but (the original instant replay) is like chewing gum. It’s always been there, and it’s been part of my life from that day on.”

And if that’s the legacy Verna, a south Philly kid who grew up selling programs at Army-Navy, takes with him, that’s quite all right.

“There used to be a guy named Howard Cosell,” Verna said without a hint of sarcasm. “And I would to go drinking with him and my best man Chet Forte, who ended up on Monday Night Football. We used to go drinking and Howard would say how he would go down in the annals of sports.

“Now, Howard couldn’t handle gin and he would have these martinis, and Chet knew how to put the knife into Howard, so he’d say, ‘Howard, no one is going to remember you 10 years after you’re dead. Verna they’ll always know, because he’ll always be attached to instant replay.’

“So that kind of thinking I felt good about,” Verna said. “When you create something that wasn’t there before, and you air it, that makes you pretty proud of yourself.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.