By Dan Gelston
The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA — All sports TV director Tony Verna wanted was a way to fill those boring gaps during a football telecast.
Quarterback throws ball, receiver catches ball, team walks back to huddle. There was so much time between plays, Verna joked fans could go eat a sandwich. There had to be a way to beef up the telecast, to give fans a new way to look at the game — or even something as simple as looking at the same play again.
Once Verna had his instant idea, sports on TV would never be the same.
It’s been 45 years since Verna and CBS used instant replay for the first time in the Dec. 7, 1963 Army-Navy game at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia.
The innovation was first used on a routine 1-yard TD run. Upon further review, there may be no greater technological advancement to the games we watch and how we watch them in the 45 years since that play.
“Not many things you can do in life where you can change the way things were happening before,” said the 75-year-old Verna, a Philly native who lives in Woodland Hills (his official website link here).
Verna, who called the first replay, takes a look back at that day in his book “Instant Replay: The Day That Changed Sports Forever.”
When Army and Navy play Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, instant replay will be used on plays from the basic to the controversial; fans in the stands to the bands; and President George W. Bush waving hello.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, blink and you missed the play forever.
Verna grew frustrated that there was no context for the play viewers saw at home. Sure, a wide receiver may have missed an open pass, but fans never saw on their TVs why he couldn’t make the catch.
What was happening away from the ball?
“I’ve got to find a way for people to see what I saw in the truck,” said Verna. “It was all in my mind. How do I do it?”
The Army-Navy game was originally scheduled two weeks earlier, but was postponed when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. With the country still grieving, CBS didn’t want to heavily promote its new gimmick.
“They didn’t want me to do anything that would be irreverent,” he said. “There was no hyping of the game, like, hey, we got a new gizmo or something.”
Verna never mentioned his idea to the announcers until he rode with Lindsey Nelson and Terry Brennan in a cab the morning of the game.
“You’re going to do what?” Verna recalled Nelson saying.
Verna told Nelson, known more as one of the original voices of the New York Mets, that he couldn’t mention the possible use of instant replay in the game in case it didn’t work and the network couldn’t deliver on its promise.
Verna said he tried at least six or seven times earlier in the game to debut instant replay, only to have some sort of glitch derail the plan. Navy led 21-7 and the game was almost over when the perfect moment struck.
Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh broke a tackle from 1 yard out and scored a touchdown. When Verna watched the pre-roll played back, he saw clean video. There was no rehearsal — it was time to go.
“I shouted into Lindsey’s ear, ‘This is it!” Verna wrote in his book.
Viewers saw the replay seconds later.
“This is not live!” Nelson screamed. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!”
The black-and-white recordings were played at the same speed and were indistinguishable from live video.
“When that thing came back right away, I almost fell out of my chair,” Verna said. “We didn’t use it again. It was so hard.”
That was the only use of replay in the game and it wouldn’t be used again until a month later in the 1964 Cotton Bowl.
Other networks caught on and started using replay about a month later, according to Verna, and slow motion instant replays were gradually added to telecasts.
Want a replay of the first instant replay? Well, sports fans, you’re out of luck. Storage for tapes was limited and they could be used again, so the game was likely erased and lost to history.
Verna even had to borrow an old tape of “I Love Lucy” to use for his first shot at instant replay.
While replay was a rousing success, Verna said he “made a lot of enemies, but not any money.”
“CBS wasn’t smart enough to go out there and get a patent,” he said. “The technical department hated my guts because they think they should have invented it, not me.”
Verna would go on to produce or direct five Super Bowls, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby and even “Live Aid.”
His lasting legacy, though, is pulling back the curtain on sports and revealing what really goes on. Turn on a game these days and there are virtual first-down lines and all sorts of cluttering technology on TV screens. A home run can be viewed by more angles than there are beers in the basement fridge.
Instant replay is used in all four of the major sports and now does the one thing Verna tried to prevent — slow the game down.
“Today, the guys are overusing instant replay in football,” he said. “I think they’re trying to nail the officials. They’ve got so many damn angles. They’re coming back showing they can see better than what’s going on on the field.”
Verna doesn’t expect the anniversary to be mentioned on Saturday’s telecast.
“They probably won’t mention me on the air. They never have,” he said. “For me to wait for my name or some recognition, that’s not going to happen.”
Not that he’ll be watching. Verna said he’ll probably tape the game.
And catch it on a replay.