Instant Replay's Quiet Revolutionary

Tony Verna, who died Sunday, achieved little recognition for an invention that changed sports history.

Tony Verna, photographed here in 1999, is credited with inventing instant replay in 1963. He died on Sunday at the age of 81. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

On December 7, 1963, Army and Navy squared off in their annual football game, then as now one of the sport's great rivalries. In the fourth quarter, Army quarterback Carl "Rollie" Stichweh faked a handoff and ran into the endzone at Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium for a touchdown.

Army fans watching at home were ecstatic. But then something strange happened. Stichweh again faked a handoff and ran into the end zone, somehow inverting the very rules of the sport. The event was so disorienting that Lindsey Nelson, the play-by-play announcer for the broadcast, had to explain to the crowd that the event wasn't live. "Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again," he said. In fact, they lost the game. But instant replay, an innovation that would change sports forever, was born.

Instant replay was the brainchild of Tony Verna, a young CBS producer and Philadelphia native who understood that replaying old video—a technology then used mainly for important news events—would be popular for sports broadcasts. Verna, who died Sunday at the age of 81, initially met with resistance from his superiors afraid that replay would confuse and annoy viewers. In a wonderful 2013 profile of Verna published in Pacific Standard, Anna Clark described how he pulled it off.

A national anthem. Kickoff. Verna fell into work, switching cameras to track the ball, hoping for a clip of [Navy star quarterback Roger] 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.

Soon thereafter, instant replay became a staple of every sports broadcast in the country. But Verna's creation would have the biggest effect on football, a sport whose symbiotic relationship with television has come to define both entities. As video technology improved, viewers soon gained the ability to watch key plays at varying speeds and every relevant angle. Referees who missed calls that viewers clearly saw on television became subject to intense criticism. In 1999, the NFL allowed coaches to challenge official rulings on the field, which referees then reviewed using instant replay. And in 2014, Major League Baseball followed suit. Knowing when and how to challenge official's mistakes has become an indelible strategy for coaches in both games.

Verna never intended to revolutionize sports. He just wanted to improve sports broadcasting. Following his creation of instant replay, he would go on to a long and distinguished career in the field, producing five Super Bowls, the Olympics, and the Kentucky Derby. But to his chagrin, Verna never received much recognition for his singular role in sports history.

"This wasn't a mushroom that came out of the ground," he told the Los Angeles Times. "There wasn't a button you could hit. Someone had to come up with it."

Nevertheless, he was proud of his achievement.

"I changed the way things were normally done. That's very hard to do in life."