"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.
October 6, 1957
It was a simple pass play that produced game-winning results: quarterback Y.A.Tittle would drop back and fire a high-arching spiral toward the end zone. Receiver R.C. Owens would then out-jump defenders to make the catch.
"I guess you could say the alley-oop was the same as a Hail Mary pass," Owens once quipped. "Except we didn't pray."
"What made the alley-oop work was timing and R.C.'s jumping ability," said Tittle, a who played for the 49ers from 1951-1960. "Defenses knew it was coming. They would put extra defensive backs on R.C. It didn't help though. They just got in the way of each other."
Owens stood 6-foot-3 and could jump like a jackrabbit. As a collegiate basketball star at College of Idaho, he led the nation in rebounding, averaging over 26 per game. Owens put his 39-inch vertical leap to work as a 49ers pass catcher.
While preparing for the second game of the 1957 campaign, the 49ers defense was devising ways to stop the Los Angeles Rams powerful passing game. During practice, Tittle mimicked Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin's deep throws. It did not take long to notice that a lively rookie receiver was leaping over defensive backs to catch the football. Head coach Frankie Albert realized that Owens could become a valuable offensive weapon.
"We practiced it a few times but I never thought we would use it in a game," Tittle said of the alley-oop pass. "In 1957 we won five games in the last couple of minutes using the alley oop."
Against the Rams in Week 2, the 49ers offense looked stale. Late in the first half, Albert gave his struggling offense the thumbs up on the alley-oop. The 49ers were at the Rams 46-yard line with time running out in the first half and a slim 9-7 lead over Los Angeles. That is when Tittle lofted a high pass to Owens in the Kezar Stadium end zone. The rookie leaped over Rams safety Don Burroughs to post his first NFL touchdown and the 49ers took a 16-7 lead into the locker room.
After falling behind the Rams 20-16 late in the fourth quarter, Tittle and Owens tried it again. This time Tittle seemed to hesitate before floating the football over the head of the Rams 5-foot-11 defensive back Jesse Castete. Owens had no trouble pulling the ball out of the air deep in the corner of the end zone for his second score of the day, earning San Francisco a 23-20 victory.
Midway through the 1957 season, the alley-oop pass had become a standard part of the 49ers offense. It came in handy in a regular season win over the Detroit Lions, the club that would later beat San Francisco in the 1957 divisional playoff game.
With 20 seconds on the clock, the 49ers were at the Lions 41 and trailing 31-28. Owens was doubled teamed and was hounded down the field by Detroit's All-Pro defensive back (and future 49ers head coach) Jack Christiansen. Tittle rolled to his right then let fly a rocket that sailed at least 50 yards in the air. Once again, Owens grabbed the pigskin over a pair of defenders.
"Jim David and Jack Christensen had him covered every inch of the way," Lions coach George Wilson said after the 49ers dramatic 35-31 win. "But they just couldn't go up in the air the way Owens did, just like off a springboard. Yes, we were expecting a long pass but there was nothing we could do about it."
Owens became the first in a long line of great 49ers pass catchers to record over 1,000 receiving yards in a season after seizing 55 passes for 1,032 yards in 1961.
During his 49ers career from 1957-1961, Owens posted 177 receptions and 20 touchdowns, while averaging 16.6 yards per catch.
Owens is a member of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame as well as the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame.