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Interesting Story: The Alley-Oop
The Alley-Oop pass that electrified the NFL in 1957 started by accident.
  • The San Francisco 49ers began the season with high hopes of winning the NFL Western Division for the first time ever. However, they started with a 20-10 loss to the Chicago Cardinals, one of the worst teams in the league.
  • Their morale at a low ebb, the Niners now prepared for their in-state rivals, the Los Angeles Rams, one of the best teams in the NFL.
  • Toward the end of a practice that had not gone well - receivers dropping balls, D lineman crashing through the O line - QB Y. A. Tittle got so frustrated that he simply threw the ball straight into the air with no receiver in mind. 6'3" rookie WR R. C. Owens, despite being surrounded by three DBs, leaped into the air and grabbed the ball before the defenders could react. No one was more surprised than Tittle. a 10-year veteran of pro ball.
  • Someone on the sideline yelled, "Hey, that's our Alley-Oop play!" Alley Oop was the title character of a comic strip set in prehistoric times. It's not clear why the unknown person chose that name for the pass, but it stuck.

QB and receiver worked on the play the rest of the week after regular practice ended. Tittle recalls:

The mechanics of the play were not fancy. The concept was simple. I was to throw the ball as high and as far as I could. R. C. would jog down the field, wait for the ball to get about 14 feet from the ground, and then outjump everybody around him. This former College of Idaho basketball star [and the school's leading career rebounder to this day] could really soar through the air. At the height of his jump, he was usually head and shoulders above the defensive backs.

In the beginning, no one really took the Alley-Oop seriously. Because we all had so much fun with the maneuver, the coaches saw it more as a remedy for the team's low morale rather than a formidable weapon. But either way, R.C. and I had a lot of fun with it.

The media heard about what was happening at practice and wrote about it, which should have alerted the Rams but didn't.

  • The first Alley-Oop in a game came near the end of the first half with the 49ers leading 9-7 following a safety when the Rams fell on a botched handout in their own EZ.
  • Joe Arenas returned the free kick to the Ram 45, and, with only 50 seconds on the clock, Tittle decided to unveil the Alley-Oop. He dropped back and aimed the ball at the corner of the EZ, throwing it as high as he could.
  • DB Don Burroughs, an inch taller than Owens, went up with R. C. but the 49er yanked the ball right out of Don's hands for the score. All of a sudden, many in the capacity crowd of 59,637 at Kezar Stadium started yelling in unison, "Alley-Oop, Alley-Oop, Alley-Oop!"
  • Los Angeles came back in the second half to take a 20-16 lead with less than three minutes remaining. But Tittle directed the 49ers drove to the LA 11.
  • On second down, Y. A. stepped into the huddle and said, "We'll go for the Alley-Oop." As the former LSU star recalled, That's the first time (in the huddle) I ever called the play by name, and everybody knew what to do, especially Owens.
  • R. C. jogged into the EZ and stopped next to DB Jesse Castete, who stood an inch short of 6'. Tittle counted to two, then heaved the ball almost straight up. All the players turned into spectators watching the ball reach its height, then descend into the EZ.
  • Owens seemed nonchalant, but at the right moment he sprang up like a cat and came down with the ball hugged against his chest to secure the 23-20 victory.

Y.A. summarized the plight of the defense against the 49ers new weapon.

With the Alley-Oop now considered to be a legitimate weapon, the only defense against it was a defensive back who could outleap R.C. - and at that time, no such animal existed in the NFL.

SF didn't use the Alley-Oop in the next game, but Owens did make an incredible TD catch on his knees after being knocked down and crawling into the EZ with less than five minutes to go to pull out the 21-17 victory over the Bears.

A week later, the Niners took on Green Bay.

  • One of the officials askedduring the game, Hey, Y.A., when are you oing to throw one of those Alley-Oop passes? I've never seen the thing. How about the next play? Tittle replied.
  • So he threw the ball up in the air as R.C. raced downfield and waited for the ball. As he vaulted into the air, he batted it out of the reach of the two Packer defenders, caught it on the rebound, and fell over the goal for the TD for the Niners' final points in a 24-14 triumph.
  • The official who requested the play told Y.A., Thanks, Tittle, but don't try it again. The next time you'll be bringing down rain, and we've got a nice dry field here.

It was against Detroit the next week that Owens made what Tittle describes as the greatest catch I had ever seen in football.

  • With 1:20 left in the contest, the Lions took the lead 31-28 on Tobin Rote's 8y pass to Jim Doran. Many of the 49er faithful headed for the exits.
  • Starting the possession on their 18, the 49ers moved into Lion territory on Tittle's short passes that enabled the receivers to get out of bounds.
  • Finally, at the Detroit 41, Y.A. was close enough to try the Alley-Oop. Sensing what he might do, many departing fans stopped and stood in the aisles to watch.
  • The four-man rush flushed Tittle out of the pocket. He had to run back to the 50 and toward the sideline just trying to get in position to let it fly.
  • Meanwhile, R.C. ran down the right sideline closely covered by one of the best DBs in the league, Jim David.
  • Finally, Tittle threw the ball higher and farther than I ever had before. Right after letting it go, he was knocked down and watched the rest of the play on his backside.
  • Owens waited at the 1y with David and his DB buddy, Jack Christiansen, for company.
  • All three leaped, but R.C. caught the ball and fell into the EZ with just 11 seconds left.
  • The human kangaroo said afterward: I knew I had to catch that ball and I just went up there to get it. Asked if it was his greatest catch, he replied, It's got to be.
  • 49ers coach Frankie Albert, Tittle's predecessor as the starting QB, declared: R.C. earned his salary with that one catch. And how about Tittle? It was Y.A.'s greatest game. I have never seen a quarterback past or present who could do the things he did today.

The 49ers and Lions finished in a tie for first in the Western Division. They met in the playoff on December 22 at Kezar Stadium.

  • Frisco started the scoring with a 34y Alley-Oop that Owens again caught over David.
  • SF led 27-7 early in Q3 before Detroit caught fire when Rote entered the game and led Detroit to 28 straight points to earn the right to play the East titlists, the Cleveland Browns, for the championship.
  • Continuing the momentum from the 49er game, the Lions clobbered Paul Brown's team 59-14.

Owens played four more years with the 49ers.

  • He made several more high-leaping catches but none as dramatic as the ones he snagged in '57. At one point, the coaching staff stationed him under the goal posts to try to bat down a FG attempt.
  • R.C. finished ou this career with two seasons with the Colts and one with the Giants.
  • Tittle played three more seasons in the City by the Bay but none as successful as '57.
  • Wanting to turn the reins over to young John Brodie, the Niners traded Y.A. to the Giants, where he flourished for three seasons, including an appearance in the 1963 title game against the Bears.

You occasionally hear the term "Alley-Oop" during football games, but it is primarily used now in basketball for a high pass to a streaking big man who leaps, catches the ball, and slams it into the net in one motion.

Reference: Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football, Y.A. Tittle with Kristine Setting Clark (2009)

49ers QB Y.A. Tittle
49ers WR R. C. Owens
R. C. Owens
Cartoon character Alley Oop
Lions QB Tobin Rote
Lions DB Jim David
Jim David
49ers Coach Frankie Albert
Coach Frankie Albert
R. C. Owens' Leaping Catch
Owens making an acrobatic TD catch in 1960
R. C. Owens Goal-tending
Owens blocking a FG with Colts
Giants QB Y.A. Tittle
Tittle with the Giants

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