- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

“This is like deja vu all over again.”

Yogi Berra

So it was. And in the inevitably intertwined histories of sports and television, instant replay became a reality on a cold winter’s day in Philadelphia 43 years ago.

On Dec. 7, 1963, NBC announcers Lindsey Nelson, Terry Brennan and Jim Simpson were riding in a cab to old Municipal Stadium when telecast director Tony Verna sprang a little surprise. At some point during that day’s Army-Navy game, he would cue veteran play-by-play man Nelson and show videotape of a play that had just happened.

“What? You’re going to do what?” Nelson asked his 29-year-old director.

The idea might have been new to Nelson, but Verna had been pondering the innovative use of tape for several years. Networks already were using it to fill time during halftime of football and basketball games and during rain delays in baseball. But during a live football telecast?

“Why not?” Verna said years later, noting that TV — and TV viewers — missed so much of what was going on the first time around. “I’d say, ‘What happened on that play?’ and somebody would say, ‘[The receiver] fell down.’ And I’d think, ‘What if we could let people see that again?’ ”

There was another reason, too. Directors hate dead space, and Verna was no exception.

“When [retired Philadelphia Eagles quarterback] Norm Van Brocklin use to throw the ball and walk back to the huddle, it was really boring,” he said. “You could eat a ham sandwich it was so slow.”

The Army-Navy game seemed a perfect spot to introduce instant replay. Back then, it was one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar, and the TV audience would be especially huge. The contest had been postponed for a week following the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, and millions of grieving Americans were eager for any diversion.

Of course, there were technical problems we can hardly imagine today. Video replay machines were the size of refrigerators, and tape itself was hard to find. Verna finally borrowed an old reel containing “I Love Lucy” episodes. When it was time to air his first replay, he had to be careful that the tape was cued properly. Otherwise viewers might be treated to the sight and sound of Lucille Ball wailing, “R-i-i-i-c-k-y!

Besides, whenever a tape was cued, several seconds of static filled the screen before the desired scene came up. In some 50 practice runs before the game, Verna was unable to solve this problem.

“At halftime, I told Lindsey, ‘I don’t think the son of a gun is gonna work.’ ” Verna recalled. “But in the fourth quarter [after some judicious technical adjustments], I see and hear the picture finally straighten out, and I said, ‘Stand by, Lindsey …’ ”

Then Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh broke a tackle and scored from the 1-yard line. “Go, Lindsey!” Verna said into his headset microphone from the production truck.

“This is not live!” Nelson screamed over the air as videotape of the touchdown flashed onto the screen. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!”

The moment qualifies as historic, from a television standpoint, but there can be no replay of the replay. Soon after, the tape was lost — probably erased to tape another NBC show.

Less than a year later, instant replay was a staple of every sports telecast. Soon slo-mo, isolated and reverse-angle replays appeared. Now, Verna says accurately, “I think it’s hard to imagine viewing sports without it.”

Indeed, we have come full cycle since 1963. Most major college and pro stadiums feature huge screens that show instant replays. Otherwise, spectators would scratch their heads and say, “Did I really see what I think I saw?”

And, for better or worse, officials often consult replays when a call is challenged during football, pro basketball and hockey games. Ironically, such challenges usually lead to several minutes of air time when nothing is happening — the very thing Tony Verna sought to avoid four decades ago.

Baseball has avoided the use of replays to settle arguments, wisely considering that nearly ever pitch or close play theoretically might be challenged. Said commissioner Bud Selig: “I think the human element is very important, and I hate instant replay in the NFL. … I don’t know how we could use it to improve the job our umpires do.”

Of course, Selig doesn’t really hate instant replay — nobody does. He just hates the idea of making it a bigger part of sports than it already is.

And from a female viewpoint, there’s another reason why instant replay became and remains so important. As comic Rita Rudner puts it, “Men forget everything. That’s why men need instant replay — they’ve already forgotten what happened.”

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