Ultimate buddies. That's how friends described the relationship between Al Cowlings and O.J. Simpson, who played together on teams from sandlots to the NFL. "That was the amazing thing about the chase of Friday," says Joe Angel, the radio play-by-play man for the Florida Marlins, who was the quarterback on the Galileo High team in San Francisco in the mid-1960s when Simpson was its star running back and Cowlings its premier lineman. "Al's done all that blocking for O.J., and there he was running interference for him again."
The 47-year-old Cowlings has been a willing, almost worshipful shadow to Simpson. They grew up together in San Francisco's Potrero Hill section, in a poor neighborhood called the Projects. Because he stuttered, Cowlings was a self-conscious youth. Simpson, on the other hand, was a silver-tongued charmer. O.J. was the leader of a street gang called the Superiors, and Al was a member. The gang was as devoted to parties and girls as it was to fighting for turf. "Fights? You'd have to be crazy to fight O.J.," says Angel. "Besides, you'd have to go through Al first."
Cowlings was with Simpson when Simpson had his first serious run-in with police. The two were teenagers on a shoplifting binge. "We were getting things together for a party, picking up a little food at one store, a little wine at another," Simpson recalled when he and Cowlings revisited the old neighborhood in 1979. "And there's where the police caught up to us," he said, pointing to Sam's Superette, at the corner of Connecticut and 20th.
"You wanted to run for it, remember?" Cowlings said to Simpson, a jarring recollection in view of Simpson's spectacular flight from the law last Friday. "I said, 'Uh-uh, no way.' You just figured you had the best chance because you were faster than anybody else."
Simpson was good at getting into mischief and wriggling out of it. As he is quoted in the book The O.J. Simpson Story, "Time and time again I got away with things." That includes the theft of Cowlings' girlfriend, Marquerite Whitley, who became Simpson's first wife. Cowlings had asked Simpson to speak to her on his behalf after he and Whitley had had an argument, and the next thing he knew, Whitley and Simpson were dating. Cowlings was so enraged that the normally gentle giant tried to tip over Simpson's car. Simpson and Cowlings soon patched things up, though.
Cowlings followed his friend from Galileo to City College of San Francisco and to USC, where they roomed together. It was at Simpson's urging that the Buffalo Bills, who had drafted Simpson in 1969, made Cowlings their first-round pick in 1970. A defensive end, Cowlings started for the next three seasons but never lived up to expectations, and in 1973 he was traded to the Houston Oilers. He later played for the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks and the Rams again before being reunited with Simpson on the San Francisco 49ers in 1979—the final season for both.
Cowlings has since worked as a bartender and has had bit parts in TV shows on which Simpson worked. He has been a frequent visitor to Simpson's house while keeping his own apartment in Los Angeles. He has also served as Simpson's bodyguard, and it was Cowlings who screened mourners at Nicole Simpson's funeral. A close friend of the Simpsons says that Cowlings was the one who took care of Nicole and O.J.'s two children right after the murder because Nicole's parents were too upset." A.C. is the nicest person," says the friend. "When you're in the room with him, nice gets all over you."
As for Cowlings' role in last Friday's events, the friend says, "He's the one who kept O.J. alive, I'm convinced of it. I'm so glad he was there."