The Birth of Instant Replay

It’s hard to imagine anything more fundamental to watching sports on television than instant replay. Armchair quarterbacks scrutinize plays and referee calls in all major sports like conspiracy nuts scrutinize the Zapruder Film. It’s harder to imagine a time when this ability didn’t exist.

verna-replayAs it turns out, instant replay was invented by Tony Verna, a then 30-year-old production employee at CBS, who defied his bosses during the Army-Navy game in 1963 and gave sports fans something they now take for granted.

Pacific Standard puts the achievement in context:

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.

Tony Verna changed history. The story of how he pulled this off is just incredible. Now we all know his name.

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