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Gameday Story: The Innovators

Posted by Taylor Price on November 14, 2011 – 11:31 AM

The 49ers celebrated Alumni Weekend in style, beating the New York Giants 27-20 on Sunday while honoring two of the team’s all-time greats at halftime.

Roger Craig and R.C. Owens, the team’s two inductees into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame, enjoyed a weekend-long celebration that carried over into Sunday’s win.

Both legendary players posed for our recent Gameday cover story, too. The photo taken by team photographer Terrell Lloyd, and enhanced by team graphic designer Ben Mayberry, really brings out the red 49ers Hall of Fame blazer proudly displayed by both men.

Each made contributions to not only the game of football but to the San Francisco 49ers organization.

Here is their story:

Class of 2011: The Innovators
The latest inductees into the 49ers Hall of Fame revolutionized their respective positions for the better.
By Taylor Price, 49ers.com.

Some play the game. Some change the game. The latter is what Roger Craig and R.C. Owens did for professional football. In their own unique ways – whether it be as a dual-threat out of the backfield or as a perimeter player capable of out-jumping defenders to catch any downfield throw – the pair of all-time greats stand out for demonstrating impeccable skills on the football field. Those rare abilities, quickly copied by counterparts around the league, were first seen in two greats who donned San Francisco 49ers uniforms. Though they played in different eras of the National Football League, each brought rare ability to their respective positions. Talents so coveted, if they were playing today, both play-makers would surely be found on any fantasy football team.

The two 49ers game-changers, however, will officially become teammates in 2011 as inductees into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame. Craig was the first ever fan-vote inductee and Owens was chosen as this year’s team ownership selection. “I think it’s amazing that you can get a group of guys who’ve made history in this organization and put them together on the same team,” says Craig, wide-eyed with excitement while proudly wearing his red 49ers Hall of Fame blazer at a recent visit to 49ers headquarters. “I’m going to be teammates with my boys again.” Craig was happy to take time off from work to try on his blazer and pose for Gameday along with Owens, a mentor and longtime friend. With the enshrinement ceremony taking place at halftime of the 49ers home game against the New York Giants, the celebration might as well be dubbed as, “The R.C. Show.” That was what the 77-year-old Owens came up with in a meeting for 49ers Hall of Fame Weekend. It was a great idea. Craig’s initials and Owens’ first name fit perfectly for a ceremony honoring both contributors to the proud history of the 49ers. “I’m thrilled,” says Owens, joined at the photo shoot with his wife Susan. “It shows I was able to have achievement in the times I played and now I’m able to celebrate with Roger and what he’s achieved.”

The team’s Faithful fans will also be a big part of the celebration. They’re the ones who’ve supported both players from Kezar Stadium to Candlestick Park, and are the same folks who voted for Craig to win the fan vote and continuously stop Owens in the streets to talk about his signature deep catches known as “The Alley Oop.” Like the team’s fan base, the former standouts are well aware of each other’s accomplishments on the gridiron. Craig called Owens, “His hero.” While Owens referred to Craig as his “teammate,” for the relationship built while Owens worked in the 49ers front office in numerous administrative roles following his playing career from 1957-1964. The two rekindled those memories recently while posing for the cover shoot. Craig, who keeps his three Super Bowl rings in a safe deposit box, was sans Super Bowl rings for the photograph, but Owens quickly offered one of his five Super Bowl rings for his friend to wear. “It shows what kind of man he is,” says Craig later about Owens’ kind gesture. “He’d give you the shirt off his back to anyone. He’s just that type of guy.” The rings proved to be the perfect accessory to the wardrobe acquisitions, two red 49ers Hall of Fame blazers which were officially presented to the inductees at a red carpet alumni celebration prior to Sunday’s game. “I got chills the first time I put it on,” admits Craig. “It’s very special to have one.”

Roger Craig – 1983-1990 – 4x Pro Bowler, 3x Super Bowl Champion, 1x All-Pro

Nobody put together a 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season before Roger Craig. Not Jim Brown, not Walter Payton, nor any other Pro Football Hall of Famer. Running backs being utilized in the passing game weren’t en vogue until Craig’s record-setting season in 1985. That year Craig ran for 1,050 yards on 214 carries and caught 92 passes for 1,016 receiving yards. Never mind Craig played half the year with a dislocated hip. That was irrelevant in his mind. Craig excelled any way he could, even if it meant playing with discomfort. The former NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1988 was named to four Pro Bowls and totaled 11,506 yards from scrimmage, second-most in 49ers history. “An invaluable player,” Hall of Fame 49ers coach Bill Walsh once said of Craig, who finished with 73 touchdowns in his 11 NFL seasons.

Craig, however, is modest about his accomplishments, despite there being so many to name. Far removed from his NFL career, Craig’s content with his time playing for the 49ers. It’s mostly because he won three Super Bowls (XIX, XXIII and XXIV) and was a part of some of the best teams in league history. Recently, Craig was named as a 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalist, though he says he’s not over concerned with making it to Canton to be alongside several of his teammates and former head coach. The patience and understanding dates back to a conversation with Walsh, the legendary 49ers coach. It’s one he vividly recalls to this day. “I could be anywhere and fans come up to me and say, ‘You should be in Canton!’ I just tell them, ‘It’s not my call.’ But Bill Walsh told me before he passed, ‘Just be patient. Your time is coming.’”

The ultimate football immortality might come soon for Craig, but his place in 49ers history is undeniable. No running back before him had the type of impact he had in a highly functional passing game. Craig made defenses focus on stopping his pass-catching prowess whenever he slipped out of the backfield. And when he wasn’t putting up catching statistics that would make most wide receivers envious, Craig was punishing defenses with a violent running style. Once a track and field standout in high school that specialized in hurdles, Craig instinctively carried over that high-knee style into his days with the 49ers. “Meet impact with impact,” says Craig of his on-field mindset. “I made sure the players on defense felt me. If it was my forearm, or my knees, or my shoulder, they were going to feel it.”

Moreover, 49ers fans appreciated the impact from Craig’s physical runs famously known for his wide-eyed appearance whenever carrying the football. When the team announced fans could vote for one of three 49es Hall of Fame candidates, Craig’s name was selected most, as he edged his former coach George Seifert and wide receiver standout Gordy Soltau. Craig was sincerely moved by the outpouring of support that came his way during the voting process, too. “Being enshrined into the 49ers Hall of Fame stamps my career,” says Craig. “I’m being celebrated with some of the best players that ever played with the 49ers. Now I’m in that elite class.”

Elite, definitely. One-of-kind, unquestionably. Only one other running back accomplished the 1,000/1,000 mark in the same season, Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams. The prolific accomplishment remains special to Craig. Not only does it signify the unique impact he had on professional football, but further stamped his team’s impact on the game for the way he was utilized within San Francisco’s offense. “We were focused on creating something so special, it’s still being run today,” says Craig. “Our guys, they’re running the same type of West Coast Offense with Jim Harbaugh and it’s a system that wins championships. It’s a system that brings the best out of each player.”

One player Craig has enjoyed seeing perform this season is running back Frank Gore, who recently became the first 49ers running back to post five-consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Gore passed Craig as San Francisco’s No. 2 all-time runner two weeks ago, and is 149 yards away from passing recently deceased Hall of Famer, Joe “The Jet” Perry. Craig and Gore have become friendly over the years. Craig offered support and advice after Gore’s 2010 season was cut short due to injury. In 2011, Gore’s on pace to have one of his best seasons ever and Craig loves every minute of it. “He’s the next king,” says Craig. “He’s going to be the all-time great runner that came through this organization and he deserves it. He works his tail-off. I love him like a son.”

Craig sees his running style in Gore. And he’s still running himself these days, too. Craig stays active in his running hobby. He’s not doing hurdles like in his high school days or the famous uphill runs he introduced to 49ers teammates to get better on-field results, but Craig maintains his fitness by running 40 miles a week. It helps him continuously train for whenever he feels the need to run in another marathon. He’s run in seven full marathons already. These days, Craig spends most, if not all of his time working at TIBCO Industries. He’s been active in the corporate world since his playing days concluded something he attributed to Owens’ influence over him and his 49ers teammates. “He worked for a corporate company after he retired from football. He was able to do that work and shared stories with me about it. It helped me,” says Craig. “I look at R.C. Owens like a role model.”

R.C. Owens – 1957-1961 – Wide receiver, Director of Training Camp and Director of Alumni Relations

Football was mostly running plays and short passes until R.C. Owens caught two touchdown passes in a 23-20 victory the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 6, 1957. That day, Owens did something nobody else was doing; he out-jumped opposing defensive backs for a deep touchdown pass that proved to be the game-winning play. That day, “The Alley Oop” was born. You might know it these days by the name “Hail Mary,” but anyone associated with the San Francisco 49ers knows it was first, “The Alley Oop.” That’s the type of impact Owens had on his beloved 49ers.

Owens played eight seasons, catching 177 passes for 2,939 yards and 20 touchdowns for the 49ers. He was a big contributor on some of the franchise’s best teams of the 50s and 60s and helped two quarterbacks become household names. Owens caught “Alley Oops” from Y.A. Tittle and later John Brodie. The fact that Owens was the first wide receiver in NFL history to routinely out-jump defensive backs to make back-breaking touchdown catches isn’t lost on Owens. “It was a thrill to be able to do something like that and have it be a part of my makeup,” says Owens, one of the first talented wideouts to come through the 49ers organization. “I was glad I could make that type of catch because we won a lot of games with it in the last few seconds.”

Last-minute touchdowns are especially enjoyed by Owens when he’s watching NFL football games these days. In those brief moments, he’s taken back to his days playing at Kezar. “Now, all the wide receivers are able to make that type of play,” says Owens. “I’m really pleased to see this happening. When you’re able to make a play like that, it never leaves you.” Passion for the 49ers has never left Owens. The former 14th-round draft pick, who played college basketball at The College of Idaho with NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, was always considered to be a part of the 49ers extended family. Shortly after his playing career, Owens began to work for Bill Walsh as the 49ers Director of Training Camp. He was in charge of setting up all the practices that Craig and his teammates participated in. He later became the team’s Director of Alumni Relations and was able to win multiple Super Bowl rings, the ones he proudly displays to this day.

Keena Turner, the team’s current VP of Football Affairs and former teammate of Craig, recalls Owens dressing up as Santa Claus every year at the team’s Christmas parties. It was a highlight every year. The sight of Owens in a bright red Santa suit was always appreciated by the 49ers extended family, players, coaches and family members. “I got many gifts from Santa Claus R.C.,” says Turner with a chuckle. “It just goes to show how you were raised around here. You did everything to make this place special. R.C. always did that for us.”

In making the 49ers players feel better about themselves, it was a no-brainer decision for the 49ers to return the favor and make Owens feel better about his place in team history. When the team administrator of 20-plus years received the call from Turner informing him of his soon-to-be enshrinement into the 49ers Hall of Fame, Owens, a talkative man in his own right, was instantly at a loss for words. “I can honestly say it’s been the happiest time of his life that I can remember,” says Susan Owens, R.C.’s wife. “He’s talked about it every day since he first heard about it. He’s been inducted into other Hall of Fames (Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame) before, but this one is just so special for him.”

Equally special, Owens has been pleased with the progress of this year’s 49ers team which sits 7-1 at the midpoint of the 2011 season. Owens was also delighted to see his team beat the Detroit Lions on the road. The Lions came back to beat Owens’ 49ers squad in a 1957 playoff game that ended the season of one of the best teams in franchise history. “Every minute of the Lions game I was thinking about the years I played,” says Owens, who watched every minute of the 49ers 25-19 win in Detroit. “And I was thinking about how we could return the favor by beating them. But when the 49ers of 2011 beat them, I was thrilled.”

That thrilling feeling that’s been with Owens since he learned of his pending induction months back will be in full force on Sunday, a day after his 77th birthday. Owens has been a part of many celebrations of the team’s greatest players. Now, he’ll have his moment in the spotlight. Younger generations of 49ers fans will learn about the “Alley Oop” and his contributions to the team’s front office. “It’s exciting,” says Owens, who’s equally ecstatic to share the moment with Craig. “I consider Roger to be a teammate of mine because I got to know him when I was the director of training camp for all those years. I’ve seen the names of the individuals who’ve been enshrined and to be amongst them, I’m just in awe.”

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Posted in Announcements | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Gameday Story: The Innovators”

  1. By Neal Miller on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

    This is so “Kool” Congratulations guys.

  2. By NinersWin555 on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

    it’s pathetic that Roger Craig isn’t in the pro football hall of fame yet ! he more than deserves being nominated ! he was the ultimate threat on the football field! and Craig is one of the all time San Francisco 49ers fan favorite player !! thanks Roger for all the happiness and success you brought to our 49ers !!

  3. By Jerry Melrose on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

    For both, a well-deserved “R”oyal “C”rown…COOLa! BRAVO!!

  4. By rjd niner on Nov 15, 2011 | Reply

    Roger Craig,Bill Walsh once said that he looked like a catfish when he was running over and through people .

  5. By Lanel Chambers on Feb 2, 2012 | Reply

    This is one of the most creative concepts in the history of sports – R.C. and R.C. NFL Films made me aware of R.C. Owens, who, evidently, influenced basketball TOO. Congratulations to two football players who were fun to watch and who have my complete respect.

  6. By Lanel Chambers on Feb 2, 2012 | Reply

    By the way my initials are L.R.C.

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