Football fans remember R.C. “Alley Oop” Owens as the 49er who first perfected what’s now called the Hail Mary, a play so common today it’s hard to imagine the game without it.
He’s almost as well-known for being able to jump so high that he could stand under the goal posts and knock down field-goal tries — a trick the league finally prohibited just to stop him from doing it, recalled admirer John Madden, who was on hand Monday as Owens was among the five inductees in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.
But the bear of a receiver has a rather different reputation with 49ers and their families who were on the team through the 1980s.
“They loved me because I played Santa Claus all those years,” he chuckled.
Owens played for the 49ers between 1957 and 1961, but returned to the team in 1979 to take on the role of training camp director — a position he held for more than a decade. Among his duties — outside of donning a red suit and a white beard every Christmas — were ensuring players’ families were cared for and entertained while the team practiced — a role he loved.
“I got a chance to meet everybody’s families, and players didn’t have to worry — R.C. had a lot of things planned for their families, so they could go on with their job,” he said.
Owens joined Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano, longtime USF men’s soccer coach Steve Negoesco, former A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris and Raiders owner Al Davis, whose honor was accepted by longtime friend and colleague Madden, in the Class of 2010.
Owens came to the 49ers from the College of Idaho, where he had been a two-sport athlete: football and basketball. He credits those basketball skills — the ability to run fast and jump high — with the play that launched him into fame a few years later: the alley oop.
Up through the late 1950s, quarterbacks threw directly to players, who then maneuvered away from coverage.
But in practice one day in preparation for a game against the Los Angeles Rams, the coach instructed quarterback Y.A. Tittle to throw the ball as far downfield as he could, regardless of who was covering Owens.
To everybody’s surprise, Owens caught the ball, even with three defenders on him. They practiced the play again and again and he kept outjumping his teammates to catch the ball. They decided to try it on the Rams that week.
“I caught two alley oops that Sunday — one to beat the Rams with 2 minutes to go,” he said.
Madden accepts honor for Raiders owner Davis
Asked what one thing people should know about Raiders owner Al Davis is, and John Madden doesn’t hesitate: “That he’s really misunderstood,” he said. “He’s really a good guy. He likes the other image — part of that tough-image bad guy, he enjoys that. But that’s not what he is.”
And Madden should know. He was hired by Davis at age 30 and spent a dozen years working under him — a relationship he described as involving a lot of arguing but a great deal of mutual respect. The two are still close. Madden, who retired from broadcasting last year and lives in Pleasanton, said he sees Davis frequently and speaks to him even more often.
Madden was on hand Monday night to both present Davis as an inductee to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and accept the honor on his behalf. Davis was in Orlando, Fla., at the NFL owners’ meetings.
“I think a lot of people were surprised that Al Davis wasn’t in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame [already]. He belongs there and everyone knows it,” he said.
— Katie Worth
Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame inductees
WHO: Brian Boitano
WHAT: Figure skater
HIGHLIGHTS: Won gold medal at the Olympics. … Four-time U.S. national champion. … Two-time world champion. … Began skating career in Sunnyvale, now resides in S.F.
WHO: Bert Campaneris
WHAT: Former A’s shortstop
HIGHLIGHTS: Holds the A’s franchise records for games played, hits and at-bats. … Was key part of three A’s World Series teams (1972-74). … Played 19 big league seasons.
WHO: Al Davis
WHAT: Raiders owner
HIGHLIGHTS: Has been part of 13 division championships. … Has helped Raiders win three Super Bowls. … Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
WHO: Steve Negoesco
WHAT: Former USF soccer coach
HIGHLIGHTS: Coached men’s soccer team for 19 seasons. … Compiled 544 career victories. … Led Dons to four NCAA titles.
WHO: R.C. Owens
WHAT: Former 49ers receiver
HIGHLIGHTS: Along with quarterback Y.A. Tittle, perfected the alley oop. … Spent eight seasons in NFL. … Finished career with 206 catches, 3,285 yards.