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R.C. Owens (photo by Photo Courtesy San Francisco 49ers)

DOWNTOWN — R.C. Owens may be best known as the creator of the “alley-oop” catch in football, but locally he’ll always be remembered for much more.

The football innovator died June 17 in Manteca, Calif., of kidney failure, but not without a lifetime of accomplishments on and off the field.

After graduating from Santa Monica High School in 1952 he went off to play ball at College of Idaho and the NFL, but he always remembered where he came from, his lifelong friend Norman Hensley recalled.

Owens would frequently return to Santa Monica to Calvary Baptist Church to speak to children who looked up to him as a pillar of the city’s African-American community.

“He was a guy that would stress education,” Hensley said. “He wasn’t just about being an athlete. He would encourage us kids to go to college.”

Hensley, who is four years younger than Owens, remembers playing basketball with the then-Samohi standout. He would frequent the middle schools, making friends along the way, including Hensley.

It was an impression that stuck with Hensley as the two remained friends until Owens’ passing.

They would frequently speak over the years despite the fact that Owens relocated to the Bay Area during his playing days with the San Francisco 49ers and stayed there permanently. Hensley still lives in Santa Monica on the property his parents bought in the 1920s.

Hensley said that part of the pair’s bond was their experience being African-American at a time and place where it wasn’t an easy thing to do.

“We faced a little discrimination in Santa Monica,” Hensley said. “But, if you were an athlete like R.C. and myself and some of the other guys, you could go to any part of the city.”

For others in the community, that wasn’t the case.

Their common bond with white athletes is what sheltered them from some of the racial strife that ruled the day, but it didn’t go unnoticed for Hensley.

While Owens will be remembered for his position in the community, his claim to fame was the “alley-oop” catch.

Legend has it that 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle was scrambling in the backfield and decided to try to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone. Problem is, nobody told Hensley.

He’s said to have leaped over his defenders, snagging the ball and securing a touchdown.

The play soon became a part of the Niners’ playbook helping Owens amass 27 receptions, 395 yards and 5 touchdowns his rookie season in an era not known for gaudy passing stats.

Owens’ death has sent shock waves up and down the coast.

“The 49ers family has suffered a great loss with the passing of R.C. Owens,” 49ers Owner and Chairman John York said. “Long after his days as a player were over, his devotion to the organization remained strong. R.C. was an ever-present supporter of the 49ers Foundation and did great works with the community at large. The San Francisco 49ers and our faithful fans will forever be grateful for his contributions and he will be sincerely missed.”

The 6-foot-3 Owens, a college basketball star, also played two seasons for the Baltimore Colts, and his final year was with the New York Giants in 1964. He had 206 career receptions for 3,285 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also ran for a score.

Owens, elected into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, was selected by the 49ers in the 14th round —160th overall — of the 1956 draft.

After retirement, Owens worked from 1979 to 2001 for the 49ers in a variety of positions, including director of training camp and director of alumni relations. The 49ers said he loved his role of entertaining and caring for players’ families while the players practiced.

When San Francisco held training camp in Stockton from 1998-02, Owens started a summer reading program in schools while doubling as the 49ers training camp director. That program recruited more than 10,000 kids from San Joaquin County into reading programs. Current and former players have kept such reading programs in place, including one at Shasta Elementary in Manteca where he lived.

Owens was born on Nov. 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La. He is survived by his wife, Susan.

daniela@smdp.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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