You’ve probably never heard of Tony Verna. But he’s one of the most influential men in the history of football.
Verna, who died on Sunday at the age of 81, was a young producer for CBS Sports when he got a brilliant idea for the network’s television coverage of the 1963 Army-Navy Game: He would show a key play a second time, quickly enough that viewers at home would see it again without having to miss the next play.
It wasn’t easy. Verna told the Pacific Standard in 2013 that prior to that 1963 Army-Navy Game, networks needed about 15 minutes to cue up a film and show a play for a second time. To do it in 15 seconds required an innovative approach that featured some fits and starts and setbacks including vacuum tubes burning out and a replay having to be scrapped because the film they used had previously been used to record an I Love Lucy episode and Lucille Ball’s face could still be seen superimposed over the football field.
But finally, when Army scored a touchdown, Verna had the footage he needed and the equipment functioned properly, and so CBS showed the score before the extra point, with announcer Lindsey Nelson explaining to viewers that they were seeing the first instant replay in the history of television: “This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!”
Verna’s innovation surely played a large part in the rise of football as America’s most popular sport over the last half century. Instant replay is so perfectly suited for football that it’s now almost impossible to imagine watching a game on TV without seeing most plays a second time. And, of course, instant replay has changed the game itself, as referees use it to correct missed calls. Verna said it never even occurred to him that replay would make officiating better. He just wanted to make the experience of watching football on TV better. And he did.
“What should it say on my tombstone?” Verna said in 2013. “‘Son of Italian immigrants. Invented Instant Replay.’”
Quite a legacy to leave.