Virtual first-down line now 15 years old

This screen grab shows Giants' Tiki Barber running

This screen grab shows Giants' Tiki Barber running for a first down, depicted by the yellow line, in a game against the Detroit Lions. (Credit: ESPN Screen Grab)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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Sure, the 20th century had its share of noteworthy human achievements, from radio to antibiotics to space travel to the Internet to EZ Pass.

But Friday we mark the 15th anniversary of the best of all: the yellow virtual first-down line that has changed the way we watch football on television.

It was unveiled on ESPN for a Bengals-Ravens game in Baltimore. The world never would be the same.

"Sometimes I go back and look at those tapes and I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach," said Jed Drake, who at the time was ESPN's vice president of remote production and still is an executive at the network.

"We put it on the air and it was moving that much? But at the time that was pretty darn good."

The idea of a virtual line dates to the late 1970s, but it was not until 20 years later that a nascent company called SportVision overcame a series of technical hurdles to invent a practical system.

I could attempt to explain it all here, but there is not enough room in the paper or my cranium. Readers smarter than me should check out a detailed piece by former SportVision CEO Bill Squadron posted on SI.com in July.

Jerry Gepner and Stan Honey were the technical aces behind the system, which uses three-dimensional mapping of the playing surface. Honey had developed Fox's infamous glowing hockey puck before the yellow line and still is at it, working on the America's Cup races that concluded Wednesday.

SportVision had shopped the yellow line to various networks before ESPN bit after a meeting that included Honey, Squadron, Gepner, Drake and Howard Katz, then ESPN's executive VP of production and now a senior VP at the NFL.

"It was one of those moments where you have to take a deep breath, look up to the ceiling and say, 'Could this really work?'" Drake said. "Then you get that feeling like, 'Wow, this could be something very, very different.'"

Among the key questions, Drake said, was, "Is it really something our viewers appreciate and want? Will it make our coverage better?"

Said Katz: "We all got tremendously excited about it, but we had eight zillion questions about how it was going to work."

Unlike their broadcast counterparts, ESPN was willing to take the plunge. Katz said Drake was the driving force on ESPN's end -- he even made the final call on the yellow color -- and SportVision was determined to make it work.

"We had a culture of innovation that made it a perfect marriage," Katz said.

It all seems obvious now, but then? Hardly.

"Putting aside the science project aspect of it, there was a great deal of angst about whether we were right," Drake said. "Fox thought the same way when they launched the glowing puck. Their gut said it was going to be the greatest thing to happen in the history of hockey."

Drake said a turning point came when NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was invited into the production truck to view a test during a preseason game at Giants Stadium. "Thankfully, to his credit he looked at it and said, 'I think this is good; I think you guys should go ahead with this,'" Drake recalled. "It was the ultimate validation."

ESPN had hoped to unveil the line for the opener but was concerned about jiggling images in test runs and waited until Week 4.

The line soon was a hit. ESPN had negotiated a season of exclusivity, so that when Fox sought to use it for the Super Bowl, ESPN had the power to say no, and did. "That was the best compliment we could have had," Drake said. "They wanted it desperately for the Super Bowl."

Over the ensuing decade-and-a-half the technology has become far more refined, and fans have come to expect the line for every game. Young fans have been known to wonder where the line is when they first attend a game in person.

All that in a mere 15 years. "It's still a teenager," Drake said, "but a lot better behaved."

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