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An idea more than worth a second look

October 20, 2008|Jerry Crowe

Watching football on television in the 1950s and early '60s, Tony Verna remembers, "You could eat a sandwich between plays."

As a director of televised football, Verna detested that.

But it wasn't only the dead time between snaps that troubled the young director. Verna also found it vexing that, via monitors in the production truck, he could see things happening in games that viewers at home could only imagine.

"The Dutchman throws a ball up the middle, but there's nobody there," Verna says, showing his age by mentioning former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. "He expects Tommy McDonald to be there, but there's no Tommy. So I see on the monitor that Tommy was tripped at the line of scrimmage.

"The announcers didn't say on the air what happened. They just said, 'Well, it was an incomplete pass.' And I said, 'Wait, there's a story here.' "

And so he conjured a revolutionary idea: What if he could fill the gaps between plays and tell the story by showing plays again, perhaps via the perspective of an alternate camera, immediately after they'd first been shown?

Verna, 74, details the experiences that resulted in his genre-altering innovation in a new book, "Instant Replay: The Day That Changed Sports Forever."

In it, Verna presents himself as the man who invented instant replay and recounts that he had been tinkering with the concept of "videotape replay" for months before introducing it during the fourth quarter of a CBS telecast of the Army-Navy game from Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia on Dec. 7, 1963.

Within a year, instant replay would be well on its way to becoming a staple of televised sports, changing forever the way we watched our favorite games and virtually making the living-room recliner the best seat in the house.

Entertainment Weekly later listed instant replay's debut among its 100 greatest television moments. In 2004, Sports Illustrated cited "deja view" as one of sport's "20 great tipping points" of the previous 50 years and wrote of instant replay's impact, "The revolutionary premise was that sports could be improved not by changing the games but by changing the way they were packaged."

But on a late autumn afternoon in Philadelphia nearly 45 years ago, the concept was so foreign that when footage of a one-yard touchdown run by Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh was replayed for viewers within seconds of its actually happening, announcer Lindsey Nelson fairly screamed into his microphone, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!"

Says Verna, recalling a sense of relief, "I didn't have a champagne thought at the time. I just thought, 'Phew, OK, I can put that in my back pocket.' "

Verna, who lives in Woodland Hills, produced or directed five Super Bowls and dozens of other championship games and major television events, among them the global music extravaganza "Live Aid" and Pope John Paul II's "Prayer for World Peace." His accolades have included Emmys and a lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of America.

But what the Philadelphia native wants chiseled onto his tombstone is this: "Tony Verna, son of Italian immigrants, invented the instant replay."

Says Verna: "If you change the way something's been done in life, and you change how it's done forever, I think that's the most important thing. I changed the way things were normally done. That's very hard to do in life."

And yet, Verna never made a dime from his innovation.

"I made a lot of enemies," he says over lunch in Pacific Palisades. "Jealousy's been the hardest thing I've had to fight in life. The problem is, when you invent something when you work for CBS, it belongs to CBS. I never understood why CBS didn't take out a patent. But the top guys hated me. They were supposed to invent that, not me. . . .

"What bothered me is that they never gave me the recognition. Money's one thing, but they never said, 'You did it.' This wasn't a mushroom that came out of the ground. There wasn't a button you could hit. Someone had to come up with it."

That someone was Verna, only 19 when he launched his career and later described by Nelson as TV sports' "No. 1 director" of the early 1960s.

At first, Verna wondered privately what he'd wrought.

"I felt like I was standing behind the magician, giving away the trick," he says of his early misgivings about instant replay. "In other words, when the replay came up, I'd say, 'I thought that guy had jumped a lot higher than that.'

"I thought more of the play before the replay kind of deflated it."

And later, when instant replay came into use as an officiating tool, it often created the type of between-plays delays that Verna had worked to eliminate.

But instant replay, the director knew, was here to stay.

Its popularity was instant.

Viewers loved it.


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