I got to talk with the oddball inventor of instant replay, Roger Staubach, Terry Brennan, Rollie Stichweh, and, um, my dad for a story I'm proud to finally share with you. Even Lucille Ball and Lee Harvey Oswald make cameos.
Here's how my article for Pacific Standard opens:
All Tony Verna wants is a little credit.
It’s been 50 years, for god’s sake. Verna may be living a plush life in Palm Desert, California, alongside a shelf packed with Emmys. But trophies don’t matter if no one knows what you did to earn them.
“What should it say on my tombstone?” Verna says, sighing loudly. “‘Son of Italian immigrants. Invented Instant Replay.’”
Sure, a concept isn’t something you can patent. If it were, Verna would be cashing in. “Who can imagine getting royalties on that?” he asks. But more important than money is recognition: It wouldn’t hurt if more people knew what Verna did as a 30-year-old CBS underling, when Army met Navy 50 years ago this month. Sitting in a clunky television truck outside the 1963 football game, Verna patched together the first-ever use of instant replay. He gave little warning to co-workers, network announcers, or his boss, and he only managed to replay a single clip—featuring the losing team, no less.
“Well, my wife thinks it’s impressive,” Verna tells me.
With that lone clip, however, Verna helped football become the most popular—and lucrative—televised sport in America. No longer is at-home fandom a matter of squinting into snowy black-and-white screens to catch game-day bulletins. It’s a fantastic, layered, and multi-angled experience—12 cameras per nationally televised college game, 24 for national championships, 44 for Super Bowls. Broadcasting is now so advanced, stadiums struggle to keep up. These days, you often see the game better when you are not there.
Instant replay even transformed how we think about the physical game. We expect a level of precision that once would have seemed obnoxious. In bounds or out? Holding or not? It’s not enough anymore to get the gist. We analyze replays as if they were the Zapruder film. Everyone is an expert.
This isn’t just about football. In the second MLB rule change since it lowered the pitcher’s mound, and only the third since deadball, managers will challenge calls with replay review next season. NBA officials use replay for buzzer-beating shots. Soccer is conspicuous for not using replay. FIFA’s general secretary said, “football’s human element must be retained. It mirrors life itself and we have to protect it.” Instant replay, then, cuts at the heart of a game. It’s an astounding legacy for a mere trick of television.
So, there’s no doubt: Tony Verna changed history. Too bad no one knows his name.
He’s learned to tick off his own accomplishments. In his South Philadelphia accent, Verna will name all the people who have called him a legend. He’ll casually mention reporters who found their way to him. (“Sweden’s coming to see me,” he says, meaning a journalist.) He’ll brag about living on the Pacific Coast Highway, where Doris Day and Stuart Whitman were his next-door neighbors, and he’ll tell you about how once, Ted Turner, “a longtime friend of mine,” flew him to Atlanta and offered him $700,000 for a year’s work. “I was worth more than all the announcers put together,” Verna says.
But back in Philadelphia, Tony Verna was just trying to stage a good show. “I didn’t invent instant replay to improve officiating, or anything like that,” Verna told me. “I invented it for a better telecast.” Had CBS realized this was a historic game, the network might’ve stayed its usual practice of erasing and reusing videotape. They didn’t. No recording of the full television broadcast of the 1963 Army-Navy game exists.