Star athlete R.C. Owens and The College of Idaho lift each other to new heights
On November 3, 1957, R.C. Owens jumped high into the air as he had done hundreds of times before.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the leap would change Owens’ life – and forever transform the way American professional sports are played.
Owens’ San Francisco 49ers trailed the Detroit Lions 31-28 that day. As the final seconds ticked away, quarterback Y.A. Tittle launched a desperation pass from midfield. Owens, surrounded by Detroit defenders, soared above the crowd and snagged the game-winning touchdown.
The play, known famously as the “Alley Oop,” would become a staple of the 49er offense and the hallmark of Owens’ eight-year NFL career. Today, the play remains a vital component of both football and basketball playbooks across the country.
“It makes me very proud,” said Owens, a 2011 inductee into the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame. “To this day, people call me ‘Oop,’ and it’s still very exciting for me.”
Prior to his NFL career, Owens honed his athletic talents in tiny Caldwell, Idaho, as a three-sport standout at The College of Idaho. Long before he patented the Alley Oop – back when he was known as plain-old R.C. – Owens already had a habit of doing things no one had ever seen.
It is a habit that stuck with him the rest of his life.
“R.C. had something like a 39-inch vertical leap,” said Ed “Buzz” Bonaminio ’56, a football teammate of Owens. “There weren’t too many guys doing that in those days. R.C. was just a great athlete. He could do anything.”
From his prep school years at Santa Monica High to his C of I glory days and eight-year NFL career, Owens blazed a trail of athletic accomplishment. In 1956, he became the first C of I athlete to be drafted by both the NFL (49ers) and the NBA (Minneapolis Lakers). In 1961, Owens became the first 49ers’ receiver to record a 1,000-yard season. And in 1962, Owens became the first – and only – NFL player to block a field goal by jumping to swat the ball away in front of the uprights. The league quickly changed its rules and outlawed the move.
“R.C. was ahead of his time,” said Bill Kundrat ’56, who played football and basketball with Owens. “If he was 25 years old again and playing right now, he would be on an NFL team. He had that kind of talent.”
Athletes of Owens’ caliber were rare in those days, particularly at a school as small as C of I. Owens starred at receiver, defensive back and punter, leading the Coyotes to three consecutive Northwest Conference football titles between 1952 and 1954, including an undefeated regular season and berth in the Refrigerator Bowl in 1953. His best individual season came as a junior, when he led the entire NAIA in receiving and was named an Associated Press Little All-American.
Owens’ football exploits were equaled by his basketball talents – he averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds per game over a brilliant four-year career. Owens’ 6-foot-3 frame and leaping ability made him one of the best rebounders in college basketball. He posted a double-double in every game he played at C of I, and he remains the school’s all-time leading rebounder to this day.
“In my opinion, R.C. could have played professional basketball,” said Dick Carrow, who played alongside Owens for two seasons and later coached the C of I men’s basketball team for two decades. “He had it all – height, speed, jumping ability, great hands. But he also had a team frame of mind. R.C. made everyone around him better.”
In 1955, Owens and future NBA legend Elgin Baylor led the Coyotes to a perfect 15-0 regular season in the Northwest Conference. Ironically, one of the Coyotes’ most popular offensive plays was the lob pass now commonly referred to as the Alley Oop.
“This was back before anyone called it the Alley Oop,” Carrow said. “But any time teams would front R.C. in the post, I would throw him the high lob pass and he would stuff it.”
Owens’ talents extended beyond athletics. He was a good student who became one of the first African-Americans to earn a diploma from C of I. Owens left school five credits shy of graduation to pursue his athletic career, but he returned and received his degree in physical education in the summer of 1958. Owens’ schoolmates describe him as an engaging, polite individual who was involved on campus and well-liked in the community.
“R.C. was the hit of the town,” Bonaminio said. “Little kids used to come watch practice and just stare at R.C. They had never seen a black person before. But R.C. was always nice to them. He treated people right, and that’s why they loved him.”
Owens remembers his time at C of I with great fondness, but it was not without challenges. A shoulder injury forced him to miss the 1955 football season, and he encountered rare instances of racism during his travels through the Northwest.
“One time there were six of us on a trip to Boise and we stopped for lunch in Garden City,” Owens recalls. “When the waitress got to me, she said ‘Sorry, we don’t serve black folks here.’ I said ‘I don’t eat black folks, I just want a hamburger.’ And then we all got up and walked out of there.”
Over the years, the College has grown into a beacon of educational diversity. With students from more than 42 countries and a thriving International Student Organization, the school has grown in ways few would have imagined in the 1950’s.
It is a shift that would not have been possible without pioneers like Owens.
“R.C. Owens was good for The College of Idaho,” Bonaminio said. “And the College was good for him.”
R.C. Owens passed away on June 17, 2012. The College of Idaho extends its condolences to the Owens family.