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Instant replay inventor Tony Verna dies at 81

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TV instant replay helped drive football to the throne of US sports, and its inventor, CBS Sports Director Tony Verna, has died at 81. Verna was a brash 30-year-old when he first tried the tech in a 1963 Army/Navy football game, but was only able to use it on a single play -- the final scoring drive -- thanks to technical problems. Since the replay was at normal speed and TV viewers had never seen one before, many assumed the quarterback had scored again. That prompted announcer Lindsey Nelson to cry, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!"

Standard Ampex videotape machines at the time weighed 1,300 pounds and were impossible to cue up. Verna managed to cajole one from his CBS bosses for the Army vs. Navy game, along with some used videotape from "I Love Lucy." He put tones on the soundtrack that would that would help him identify plays to re-air, a clever, jury-rigged way to get around the machines' limitations. Fans clearly enjoyed the replay despite the confusion, and announcer Lindsey Nelson told him "Tony, what you've done today is non-retractable... people are going to expect instant replays in games and it's never going to go away."

The tech was used for all sports, but completely changed how people watched televised football. US pigskin wasn't friendly to grainy black & white TVs of the day, and the power and grace of athletes was impossible to convey in the wide shots used. Instant replay soon ushered in multi-camera setups with closeups, all of which transformed football into popular evening entertainment in the US.

Verna also had a storied television career, having directed five Super Bowls, the Olympics and Live Aid -- an unprecedented worldwide event at the time. For the latter, Verna said "I was coordinating about 80 directors around the world... it was a very complicated show with seven different worldwide feeds." Despite that, he'll best be remembered for instant replays, which media theorist Marshall McLuhan called "a post-convergent moment in television... until (then) televised football had served simply as a substitute for physically attending the game." Thanks to Verna, now it arguably is the game.

[Image credits: Associated Press]

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