SANTA CLARA Legendary 49ers wide receiver R.C. Owens, known to teammates and fans as "Alley Oop," died Sunday in Manteca. He was 77.
Owens, who battled kidney issues over the last two decades, passed away seven months after he was inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame. At that time, the story everyone wanted him to tell was how he got his famous nickname. Owens said it remained a mystery.
"I don't know who said it, but it became part of the nomenclature," Owens said in a November 2011 interview. "You started hearing it in basketball, everywhere. Even when I see a baseball player go up and get a ball, I say, 'He made an Alley Oop.' "
Owens played his first five NFL seasons (1957-61) for the 49ers. He also played for the Baltimore Colts (1962-63) and New York Giants (1964).
With the 49ers, Owens had 177 receptions for 2,939 yards and 20 touchdowns. His best season was 1961, when he caught 55 passes for 1,032 yards and five touchdowns.
Before joining the NFL, Owens was a basketball standout at the College of Idaho, where he played alongside Elgin Baylor. Owens was only 6-foot-3, but he was an excellent rebounder, averaging nearly 28 a game as a sophomore.
"I could jump," Owens said. "I could scrape 'em off."
Owens's leaping ability created his signature play during a practice in 1957. After continually coming down with long, jump-ball-type passes in practice, Owens said one of three people quarterbacks Y.A. Tittle or John Brodie or offensive coordinator Red Hickey said they ought to call the play "Alley Oop," which was the name of a comic strip at the time.
Tittle and Owens used it twice, including for the winning touchdown, that week against the rival Los Angeles Rams.
"The defenders, sometimes two or three of them, would be down there, and (Owens) would swoop in there like a hawk and pluck it out of the air," Tittle said recently. "I think it surprised everybody."
With the Colts in 1962, Owens famously blocked a field-goal attempt by leaping and knocking down the ball as it approached the crossbar. The NFL subsequently made that illegal, and field goals can be blocked only at the line of scrimmage.
Following his playing career, Owens worked for the 49ers in several different positions, including 24 years as director of alumni relations.
One of his favorite duties involved donning a red suit and white beard and playing Santa Claus at Christmas. Owens also started a successful summer reading program for children in San Joaquin County.
"While his accomplishments on the field are well celebrated, his contributions to our organization and the Bay Area community are equally as impressive," 49ers CEO Jed York said in a statement. "As a player and a member of the 49ers front office, R.C. was a tremendous ambassador for our team. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to his friends, family, teammates and fans."