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The Human Element

• December 12, 2013 • 8:00 AM

Tony Verna in the control room. (PHOTO: CREATIVE COMMONS)

How one rebellious 30-year-old defied his bosses, hijacked tons of equipment, and gave football fans instant replay 50 years ago.

All Tony Verna wants is a little credit.

It’s been 50 years, for god’s sake. Verna may be living a plush life in Palm Desert, California, alongside a shelf packed with Emmys. But trophies don’t matter if no one knows what you did to earn them.

“What should it say on my tombstone?” Verna says, sighing loudly. “‘Son of Italian immigrants. Invented Instant Replay.’”

Sure, a concept isn’t something you can patent. If it were, Verna would be cashing in. “Who can imagine getting royalties on that?” he asks. But more important than money is recognition: It wouldn’t hurt if more people knew what Verna did as a 30-year-old CBS underling, when Army met Navy 50 years ago this month. Sitting in a clunky television truck outside the 1963 football game, Verna patched together the first-ever use of instant replay. He gave little warning to co-workers, network announcers, or his boss, and he only managed to replay a single clip—featuring the losing team, no less.

“Well, my wife thinks it’s impressive,” Verna tells me.

With that lone clip, however, 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 truck’s tape machine, shaken from the road, fitfully slipped in and out of recording. Lucille Ball’s mug kept flashing on the screen, right in the middle of a game clip.

This isn’t just about football. In the second MLB rule change since it lowered the pitcher’s mound, and only the third since deadball, managers will challenge calls with replay review next season. NBA officials use replay for buzzer-beating shots. Soccer is conspicuous for not using replay. FIFA’s general secretary said, “football’s human element must be retained. It mirrors life itself and we have to protect it.” Instant replay, then, cuts at the heart of a game. It’s an astounding legacy for a mere trick of television.

So, there’s no doubt: Tony Verna changed history. Too bad no one knows his name.

He’s learned to tick off his own accomplishments. In his South Philadelphia accent, Verna will name all the people who have called him a legend. He’ll casually mention reporters who found their way to him. (“Sweden’s coming to see me,” he says, meaning a journalist.) He’ll brag about living on the Pacific Coast Highway, where Doris Day and Stuart Whitman were his next-door neighbors, and he’ll tell you about how once, Ted Turner, “a longtime friend of mine,” flew him to Atlanta and offered him $700,000 for a year’s work. “I was worth more than all the announcers put together,” Verna says.

But back in Philadelphia, Tony Verna was just trying to stage a good show. “I didn’t invent instant replay to improve officiating, or anything like that,” Verna told me. “I invented it for a better telecast.” Had CBS realized this was a historic game, the network might’ve stayed its usual practice of erasing and reusing videotape. They didn’t. No recording of the full television broadcast of the 1963 Army-Navy game exists.

WHEN JACK RUBY SHOT Lee Harvey Oswald on live television on November 24, 1963, anchors rambled through the broadcast hole while production teams re-racked tape. NBC aired the first replay after nine minutes—fast for the era, but it had to feel like an eon. After 11 minutes, CBS screened a silent version—in haste, the network dropped the audio. This was television’s first obsessively replayed clip. The cycling of the video gave viewers the sense that if they watched, over and over, they would understand. The same principle was soon applied to sports.

Networks had experimented with in-game video replay, but clips aired up to 15 minutes later—as with the 1955 Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, where the CBC was first to use replay of any kind during a live event. Delayed replays were obnoxiously out-of-context when they burst on the screen and interrupted action, but instant replay—the broadcast of a clip immediately after its first airing—was untapped when Army and Navy took the field in 1963.

If you were a fan watching at home, here’s what you saw:

After a 52-yard drive in the fourth quarter, Army quarterback Carl “Rollie” Stichweh faked a handoff and raced into the end zone at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia. Army fans erupted with cheers. The Midshipmen hung their heads. Then, seconds later, bewildered fans at home watched as Stichweh did exactly the same thing. Again, the cheers. Again, the downtrodden Midshipmen.

“This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!” CBS announcer Lindsay Hunter hollered to television audiences as the handoff replayed. But still, confused viewers called stations to ask whether Army just tied the game. It got all the more baffling when Stichweh ran into the end zone again—this time for a two-point conversion.

In a high-profile game postponed after the death of Navy man President Kennedy, and where Heisman-winning quarterback Roger Staubach—“It was by far one of the most emotional games I’ve ever played,” he says—would orchestrate Navy’s 21-15 victory, it was the guy in the production van who had the biggest impact.

“When I was directing the game, the phone rang and it was (Dallas Cowboys General Manager) Tex Schramm,” Verna boasts. “He said ‘I just want you know that you changed sports forever.’ He could see ahead to how (instant replay) would change officiating.”

But to do it, Verna snuck around. First, he had to get mammoth equipment out of Manhattan, where CBS stored most of its broadcast tools. He also had to duck network hierarchy. As Verna tells it in Instant Replay: The Day That Changed Sports Forever (“by its inventor Tony Verna”), engineers, not production guys, typically came up with innovations like this one. Engineers would, in turn, “bring (the ideas) up to the top brass so somebody there could take the credit.” Verna also avoided the network’s research and development arm, meaning he never submitted “a bunch of memos” outlining his plan or asking CBS for investment funding.

Verna did trust his supervisor—to a point. He got his boss’ go-ahead to unofficially sidestep bureaucracy and try out replay. But, he says he “conveniently forgot” to ask before heisting a literal ton of sensitive equipment, piling it into a Hertz truck, and driving it 90 miles to Philadelphia. His boss lost heart, anyway—he took Verna to lunch the day before the game to caution him against using instant replay. The game, played by the nation’s top military schools just after the assassination, wouldn’t be appropriate for the “razzle-dazzle.”

“I wasn’t supposed to be involved in this,” Verna says. “CBS was pissed at me from day one.”

Unmoved by his boss’ warning, Verna let the crew in on the plan. Nelson, the announcer, didn’t hear about it until he was in a cab to the stadium, even though it was his responsibility to explain to viewers something no one—not even Nelson himself—had ever seen before.

A national anthem. Kickoff. Verna fell into work, switching cameras to track the ball, hoping for a clip of Staubach. But every time he cued a replay, something went wrong: the machine changed speeds, the vacuum tubes burned out. A tech guy slipped Verna a roll of high-priced videotape for the replay, but a recording of The Lucy Show and several Duz soap commercials were already on the film. The truck’s tape machine, shaken from the road, fitfully slipped in and out of recording. Lucille Ball’s mug kept flashing on the screen, right in the middle of a game clip Verna meant to re-broadcast instantly.

Finally, when Army scored, Verna’s crew caught a good shot, rewound it, and hit play. No sitcom or soap box broke the picture. A quick this is it! yelled into the headphones of Hunter and color commentator Terry Brennan, and the replay instantly hit screens.

“It was no problem,” Brennan says. “It was very simple, and Tony Verna deserves the credit. I guess it pretty much revolutionized the game.”

Staubach and Stichweh were oblivious to their place in history until they left the field. “None of us knew something like that was going to be attempted in the game,” Stichweh says, “but we certainly heard about it as soon as we left the field; Everyone had their own interesting story about how confusing and bewildering the experience (of seeing the replay) was.”

Hundreds of journalists in the stadium had no idea that the day’s most important story even occurred. Sports Illustrated didn’t mention instant replay in its game analysis. Verna followed Navy to the national championship, which it lost to Texas, and ran another replay. Making his national debut that day, sportscaster Pat Summerall contributed to history by being first to dub it “instant replay.”

Within a year, CBS wanted instant replay in every game. But they didn’t have the machines for it, and, though Verna would direct CBS broadcasts for many more years, he was already chafing about what he felt was a lack of credit. Verna also gives the side-eye to ABC Sports—namely, Roone Arledge—who, he says in his book, was “apparently trying to take credit for inventing the Instant Replay.” Arledge contends in his autobiography that he invented instant replay, but he is referring to a slow-motion highlight replayed at halftime, rather than an instantly replayed clip. Many pieces written after Arledge’s death in 2002—like this one—suggest that he first introduced instant replay into the game.

“It’s very fatiguing to do what I did,” Verna says.

BUT HOW DID REPLAY get from being TV trickery to changing football’s rulebook? That’s another story of sneaking around, but this time, it wasn’t Verna ducking CBS—it was the Big Ten ducking the NCAA.

By the time Staubach and Stichweh and the rest entered their 60s, fans were accustomed to watching maddening video replays of missed calls—two, 10, 100 times. Everybody was an expert.

The Big Ten was weary of magnified mistakes, perceived and otherwise. With at least 88 percent of its intraconference games televised each year—not to mention the rise of the Internet and DVR—fans had plenty of material to pick over. Whether it was a disputed clock or a botched out-of-bounds call, even coaches made noise about bringing replay out of the TV booth and into the game.

Quietly, through the 2003 season, the Big Ten simulated processes for instant replay. Review this, and not that? How much time will it take? What video to use?

Fast-forward a year. The Big Ten comes clean and snags permission from the NCAA to field-test replay review—for the first time, video evidence was used to correct calls in college football. Turns out that less than half of halted plays resulted in an overturned call, and reviewing plays only added about three minutes to the game.

“It was pretty clear it was going to become routine in Division I,” says Rogers Redding, now college football’s national officiating coordinator and NCAA rules secretary, who attended a Big Ten pilot-season game as an observer for the SEC. Sure thing—the NCAA approved the Big Ten’s proposal to expand replay in 2005.

But not everyone was happy with replay’s renaissance.

Officials were anti-replay. A survey in the early days of replay, according to Big Ten director of officiating Bill Carollo, revealed that 95 percent of officials felt threatened. They weren’t keen on Big Brother looking over their shoulders and they worried about on-field co-workers getting lazy: I don’t have to try so hard; replay will take care of that. Most of all, they feared embarrassment. My father, a Division II official, shares a pre-game affirmation with his crew: “This game is not on ESPN today. If we do our job right, it won’t be on ESPN tomorrow either.”

Who wanted their mistakes aired over and over and over—now with new power to publicly pronounce them wrong? “Because (officiating is) something that’s so hard to do, there’s tremendous sense of satisfaction when you get it right, and tremendous sense of despair when you get it wrong,” Redding says. “The better you get, the less anyone notices you. There’s a psychic income tax to that.”

But it turns out that replay actually reinforced officials’ worth: Reviewed calls are overturned about 26 percent of the time, according to Carollo. These days, the numbers are reversed—about 95 percent of officials support replay review. “Now we’re not embarrassed if they overturn a call,” he says. “The number one goal is to get it right.”

In fact, Carollo declares instant replay to be “the biggest and best change in 20 years in any sport.”

VERNA NOW SPENDS HIS days writing, filing for patents, and playing the races. (“As we speak, I’m betting on horses on the Internet.”) When I last talked to him, his most recent novel was a Civil War story based on the occult. “It’s online at Helium, free to the public,” Verna says. “It’s 50 chapters. My next (book) is going to be a Prohibition dramatization.”

As for his inventions, he told me he’s working on apps that deal with homeland security and instant voice-alert systems. “I can only tell you so much,” he says, “because I don’t want my body to be found in a river.”

If Verna’s tinkering these days is focused on safety, it’s fitting. Replay, after all, gifted football with a portion of its popularity and fairness. But safety is instant replay’s next great legacy.

Staubach remembers an NFL game when a Philadelphia Eagle—“I won’t say who”—knocked him out, literally, with a “dirty shot” to the side of his head. Nowadays, Staubach says, “there are too many cameras out there” for a player to get away with that. Sneaky hits have subsided, Staubach says, because players aren’t stupid: “They know some camera will see them somewhere, and those cameras are there because of instant replay.”

It took 50 years to get here. Tony Verna has watched it play out with wonder. “I never wanted to interfere with game,” he says. “I just wanted to cover it. I don’t make the rules.” But he did. Fifty years later, it’s not the same.

Anna Clark
Anna Clark is an independent journalist living in Detroit. She writes reported news features, longform non-fiction, and book reviews. She's contributed to The New Republic, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review as part of its United States Project.

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