R.C. Owens, the high-flying 49ers receiver credited with creating the "Alley Oop" play in the 1950s, was so associated with his signature catch that even Jerry Rice called him "Oop." In a play that at times was as unstoppable as it was simple, Owens would simply jump over defenders to grab high-arcing passes from Y.A. Tittle.
Owens died Sunday at age 77, according to a statement released by the team Monday. The 49ers saluted him not just for introducing "Alley Oop" to the sporting lexicon but for later serving in roles such as community ambassador, training camp director and alumni coordinator.
"The 49ers family has suffered a great loss with the passing of R.C. Owens," 49ers owner and chairman John York said in a statement. "Long after his days as a player were over, his devotion to the organization remained strong."
His most famous play was technically known as "West Four right" and was first used in 1957, when Owens was a 6-foot-3, 207-pound rookie.
The former basketball star would run toward the end zone and utilize the leaping skills that had helped him lead the nation in rebounding at the College of Idaho. Indeed, the phrase "Alley Oop" would later be borrowed by basketball to describe a player catching a high pass and finishing it off with a dunk.
Tittle's role in the play was simple.
"Do you know any teenagers?" Tittle once said. "Even they
Owens played five seasons with the 49ers (1957-61) and was part of the team's "Alphabet Backfield" -- R.C. Owens, Y.A. Tittle, J.D. Smith and C.R. Roberts.
Owens went on to play for the Baltimore Colts (1962-63) and New York Giants (1964).
He was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 and into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame in 2011.
"As a player and a member of the 49ers front office, R.C. was a tremendous ambassador for our team," chief executive officer Jed York said in a statement released by the team. "We extend our heartfelt sympathy to his friends, family, teammates and fans."
In 2007, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first "Alley Oop" pass, Owens recounted the origins of the play for the San Jose Mercury News.
The receiver insisted, contrary to other accounts, that the play was born during a practice in advance of the 49ers' game against the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 6, 1957.
To prepare their defense for the potent Los Angeles offense, coach Frankie Albert and top assistant Red Hickey instructed Tittle to mimic Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, who loved to throw deep passes.
The trouble was, Tittle was too cautious, even in practice. Owens was so well covered downfield that Tittle wouldn't let it fly.
Hickey became increasingly infuriated.
"He said, 'I don't care if they're covering the play, damn it, throw the ball down there and give them a picture of the play!' " Owens recalled.
So Tittle heaved a 40-yard rainbow toward the end zone, where Owens jumped over two defenders to snag the ball. Then he did it again. And again.
"Gee whiz, you made me look good," Tittle said after the first one.
"I can do it every time," the rookie replied.
Nobody is sure who first called the play the "Alley Oop." Some reports credit Hickey, but Owens thought it came from a player in the huddle. Regardless, the name was soon on everyone's lips because Owens scored twice on leaping touchdown catches against the Rams to spark a 23-20 victory.
"I remember going to Colonel -- that was one of Y.A.'s nicknames -- and saying, 'Colonel, just put a little wobble on the ball. That way I can catch either end,' " Owens recalled. "Y.A. said, 'I've spent my whole life trying to rifle the ball on a line, and you want me to wobble it?' "
Owens went on to catch five touchdown passes that season. Only one 49ers rookie has ever done better -- Dave Parks, with eight in 1964. He would total 177 catches for 2,939 yards and 20 touchdowns with the 49ers.
As a team employee after his playing days, his triumphs included recruiting more than 10,000 kids from San Joaquin County into reading programs.
Born in Shreveport, La., on Nov. 12, 1934, Mr. Owens spent his final years in Manteca. He had a kidney transplant in 2004.
He is survived by his wife, Susan.