Dec. 5, 2013
The following story originally appeared in the Army vs. Syracuse game program on Oct. 27, 1990 and marks the 50th anniversary of instant replay.
STICHWEH SCORES A COUP
It was Dec. 7, 1963 and a pall had been cast on the circumstances surrounding that year's Army-Navy game. Just two weeks prior, President John F. Kennedy had been ruthlessly assassinated while riding in his motorcade through the streets of downtown Dallas. As the horrific sequence of gunfire rang out along a grassy southern knoll, an entire nation was wrenched to its knees.
Still grieving the loss of their fallen leader 15 days later, the American people turned their attention to what had annually become the year's most significant sporting event. One hundred-two thousand people jammed Philadelphia Municipal Stadium on that cool, but clear late fall afternoon for a chance at witnessing first-hand a prominent piece of American nostalgia: the Army-Navy Game.
What they viewed was a truly memorable grid affair that has long been remembered as one of the greatest matchups in Army-Navy history. Ironically, those in attendance were not able to experience the day's most historic event: the birth of television instant replay. It all came about very subtly, without much fanfare. In fact, those inside the stadium were not even aware what had transpired.
The use of television as an effective medium of communication had grown at an astonishing rate during the late 1950's and early 60's. From black and white pictures to color, and then, the advent of video tape. In this era of the "fad", television producers scrambled to capitalize on the newest rage. While video replays were commonplace in sports broadcasting, immediate playback was not. That all changed on this crisp December day, thanks mostly in part to a man named Tony Verna.
The Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) was set to televise the contest with Lindsay Nelson (play-by-play), Jim Simpson (color commentator) and former Notre Dame head football coach Terry Brennan (analyst) comprising the announcing team. Yet, Verna, the telecast's producer and a name not quite so familiar to most, was the key ingredient in the mix.
An inductee into nine separate Halls of Fame, a feat unmatched by any member of the broadcasting profession, Nelson certainly could not have forecasted the impact that simple conversation with Verna down Broad Street would eventually have.
"I never envisioned at the time that it would have such wide-reaching effects," said Nelson. "Television had been making advances by leaps and bounds. I felt instant replay would add another technique to our arsenal in communicating an event, but I never figured instant replay would be of such importance."
"In later years, Tony and I would be riding down Broad Street and he would always nudge me, point out (toward the historic site now known as John F. Kennedy Stadium) and wink. Nothing else was said. The other people in the car wouldn't know what was going on, but we were recalling, what to us, was one of the greatest moments in American television."
And in Army football lore.
Nelson recently offered this recollection in his soothing southern drawl: "Tony (Verna), Jim (Simpson) Terry (Brennan) and I were riding down Broad Street on our way to the game when Tony told us that he had a gadget he might want to get on today, but that I would have to explain to the audience what it was. He had devised a means of playing back tape immediately, with no delay for editing, just a playback. He said "if I use it, you'll have to explain it was a playback of what had happened, because it will confuse the audience."
"At the time, Roger Staubach was the top player in the country, and in fact went on to win the Heisman Trophy, with his flamboyant scrambling style. We thought we'd get one of those wild Staubach scrambles and it would be perfect."
"Well, Army had the ball on the navy two, and the Army quarterback was a fellow by the name of Rollie Stichweh. As the players were coming out of their huddle, Verna said to me in my telex, `OK, we're going to go with it on this play.' So Stichweh rolled out and dove into the end zone for a touchdown and I said `Now folks don't be confused, Army has scored only one touchdown, what you are about to see is a replay.'
"Verna claims my voice was getting higher and higher so that in the end, only dogs could hear me. It was exciting to us. Nobody at the stadium knew what had happened. I saw Stichweh some time later and even he didn't know anything about it. He kind of became a historical figure without his consent."
"From that moment in the Army-Navy game, all of television changed. We didn't call it `instant replay.' We had no name for it."