R.C. Owens, original ‘alley-oop’ receiver in the NFL, dies at 77

June 26, 2012

R.C. Owens had an up-and-down career as a receiver for the San Francisco 49ers.

The ball went up, and Mr. Owens routinely came down with it.

Mr. Owens, whose leaping catches became his signature and introduced the term “alley oop” into the sports lexicon, died of kidney failure June 17 in Manteca, Calif. He was 77.

Although the long-pass play was labeled in the playbook as “West Four right,” it was simply known as “alley oop” to the 49ers and then their fans, who first witnessed it in a game in 1957.

Quarterback Y.A. Tittle would lob a pass into a crowd, and Mr. Owens, a 6-foot-3 onetime College of Idaho basketball star who led the nation in rebounding, would snatch it out of the sky.

“There were numerous games when he’d jump up and score the winning touchdown,” recalled Bob St. Clair, a tackle and captain on 49ers teams in the 1950s. “The defensive backs would fall down in the end zone and pound the turf. They’d just get so mad at themselves that he was able to out-jump them all. We’d just laugh.”

There is some debate over when the first such pass was thrown, but the 49ers point to their fourth exhibition game in 1957, when Tittle — in the face of a fierce pass rush by the Chicago Cardinals — attempted to fling a ball away by tossing it out of the back of the end zone.

To Tittle’s shock, Mr. Owens, then a rookie, leapt up and reeled in the football for a touchdown.

Alley-oop plays resulted in three game-winning touchdowns that season, powering the 49ers to an 8-4 record and their first playoff appearance.

Mr. Owens once blocked a field goal by swatting away the ball just as it was about to clear the crossbar. (National Football League rules now preclude that play.)

The term “alley oop” is now used more frequently in basketball, typically referring to a set-up for a dunk in which a player lobs the ball to a teammate near the rim.

Raleigh Climon Owens was born Nov. 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La. His parents moved to Santa Monica, Calif., two years later. He attended the College of Idaho on a football and basketball scholarship.

After being selected in the 14th round of the 1956 NFL draft, Mr. Owens was named the 49ers’ rookie of the year, with 27 catches for 395 yards and five touchdowns.

He played eight seasons in the NFL, including five with the 49ers (1957-61), followed by two with the Baltimore Colts (1962-63) and one with the New York Giants (1964). He was the first NFL receiver to wear gloves, a holdover from the cold games in Idaho.

Mr. Owens also had an effect on the game that extended beyond the field. Unhappy with a contract that paid him $10,500 for the 1960 season, he played out his option year in 1961 instead of signing a new deal with the 49ers. He then became a free agent and signed with the Colts.

So jarring was that move that 49ers owner Vic Morabito never again spoke to Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom. A year later, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle devised the “Rozelle Rule,” which required the signing team (in Mr. Owens’s case, the Colts) to compensate the player’s original team for the loss — usually in the form of money or draft picks.

In June 1963, while Mr. Owens was driving in Colorado, a tornado swept his car off the road, and his 3-year-old daughter, Pam, was killed. His 1-month-old son, Darren, suffered a fractured skull, which the family believed led to his death at 7.

After his playing career, Mr. Owens worked in public relations for J.C. Penney and later in a California office for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In 1979, he joined the 49ers’ front office, where he worked for more than 20 years.

Survivors include his wife, Susan Owens; two children; three stepchildren; and 17 grandchildren.

— Los Angeles Times

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