Man let us see it again

January 24, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Some technologies in sports, like the computerized first-down line, tiptoe onto the playing field.

Others arrive with a bang and change sports forever. Take the brisk winter day nearly 40 years ago when television viewers heard the announcer bark:

"This is not live! Ladies and gentleman, Army did not score again!"

Those words marked the arrival of perhaps the most significant -- and hotly debated -- technological development in the history of sports, instant replay.

It happened Dec. 7, 1963, in the annual Army-Navy game in Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium, one of the highest-rated sports events on television in the era before the Super Bowl.

The man behind the innovation was 29-year-old CBS producer Tony Verna, a Philadelphia native and one of the rising stars in sports television. He was often referred to by his initials: "TV."

Verna hit on the idea for instant replay a few years earlier while orchestrating Philadelphia Eagles broadcasts. He watched quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, receiver Tommy McDonald and other storied players lumber back to the huddle between plays and wanted to -- yawn.

"I could've eaten a sandwich by the time McDonald got back to the huddle," says Verna from his home in Los Angeles. "I wanted to do something to pick up the energy of the game."

His solution was videotape.

ABC was using video replay of the game during its halftime shows but nobody had tried it during the game.Verna thought the Army-Navy game would be the perfect chance to test his idea.

Navy quarterback Roger Staubach loved to scramble. So good was the future Cowboy's ability that it earned him both the nickname "The Dodger" and a Heisman Trophy. He would be the ideal guinea pig, Verna thought.Staubach was someone who TV viewers would love to see dancing down the field a second time.

When Verna asked his boss at CBS if he could try out his idea, he said, "OK, but don't use it more than five times a game."

As it turned out, Verna would be lucky to use it once.

At Memorial Stadium, Verna had the videotape machine hooked up to one of his TV cameras and ordered the cameraman to train his lens on the quarterbacks. But every time Verna thought he'd captured a juicy Staubach scramble, he found only a fuzzy image. It wasn't until the game's fourth quarter, when Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh surged past Navy defense men for a touchdown from the one-yard line, that Verna had a clean image.

A few moments later, TV viewers saw the play again from a different camera angle -- the first instant replay. "This is not live!" CBS announcer Lindsey Nelson yelled into his mike. "Ladies and gentleman, Army did not score again!"

By the next season, all the networks were using instant replay for football games and other sporting events. But Verna was having second thoughts, wondering whether instant replay had stolen a little bit of the magic.

"It's like standing behind the magician and giving away the trick," he says. "Sometimes on the replay angle it didn't look like a great play."

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