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THE SIMPSON LEGACY: LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Twist of Fate / HOW THE CASE CHANGED THE LIVES OF THOSE IT TOUCHED : A.C. COWLINGS : Driver in the Ride of the Century

October 11, 1995|CARLA HALL

O.J. Simpson's best pal from high school. Football teammate in college and the pros. Gatekeeper at Nicole Simp son's funeral. Pilot of the Bronco up a freeway and into O.J.'s driveway. Provider of the welcoming bear hug as Simpson returned home a free man. Same driveway.

"My name is A.C. You know who I am, goddamn it!"

And it will be a long time before the world--or the Highway Patrol officer at the other end of that tense cellular phone call from the fleeing Bronco--forgets.

In fact, after decades of living in the shadow of Simpson, the Bronco chase made A.C. Cowlings almost as famous as Simpson.

"For about 10 months after the ride, he couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed," said his attorney, Don Re. "He flew to New York once and there was such a mob milling around at JFK Airport. . . . They took him off the plane and drove him off the Tarmac. . . . I had an FBI agent say to me, 'We can't even get them to do that for the President.' " (The FBI agent was kidding.)

Fame hasn't been a perfect fit--unless Cowlings wants to be remembered for his raunchier side. He preened with a porn star at a bash for the X-rated movie industry and was spotted in New York enjoying a table dance at a topless club.

Photographers have caught him lashing out verbally and physically at reporters.

Because Cowlings doesn't grant interviews, Re tries to explain: "People who regularly cover the story know if they go up to him he's not going to give them an interview." (According to his attorney, Cowlings has lost respect for the media.)

At Los Angeles Airport recently, "a reporter saw A.C. walking along and kept sticking the mike in front of his face," said Re, trying to explain how these stories about his client get out of hand. When the reporter persisted, Cowlings, with a garment bag in hand, simply pushed the microphone away, Re said. "He pushed with the hand that had the garment bag in it. And the reporter said he was throwing the garment bag."

Cowlings got one business concern angry enough to sue him when it charged that he reneged on a deal to sell his Bronco for $75,000 so he could sell it to a higher bidder. "He won that lawsuit," Re said.

So where is the Bronco?

"It's not sold at this point. It's in private storage," Re said. "If he drives around town in that Bronco, people will steal things off of it. I told him 'There are two famous rides in history: Paul Revere--and you and O.J. in that Bronco.' "

Cowlings drives a Jeep. So don't bother scrutinizing any other black men in white Broncos. "There's some other fellow in town who's about A.C.'s same description with a Bronco," Re said. "I feel sorry for that guy."

Cowlings presumably drives that Jeep to the same job he had before all this started. "He works in the clothing industry," Re said, refusing to elaborate. "A regular nine-to-fiver."

Cowlings, according to his lawyer, has never made a killing off the Simpson drama. A book project fizzled. (According to Re, when the treatment for the book leaked out, "He just canceled it. He didn't want to be involved in anything he didn't have control over.") He turned down a $1-million offer to tell his story to the National Enquirer. And his 900 number, A.C. Speaks Out!, in which he holds forth on Simpson and related topics, has yet to make it possible for Cowlings to leave his day job.

There has been a drop-off in the relentless attention to him. Sure, he still leaves lunch with his lawyer at the Downtown spot Engine Co. No. 28 to find well-wishers calling out greetings in the street and stopping him for autographs, which he always gives.

But his paid appearance at a sports memorabilia show at the Anaheim Convention Center in September was a bust. Fewer than 70 people paid to get his autograph. John Wooden, celebrated head coach of the UCLA basketball team, outdrew Cowlings 2 to 1.

"I said to A.C., 'There's an article here that says John Wooden got twice as many autograph seekers as you did,' " Re recalled. "He said, 'I would hope so. The man won 10 national titles.' "

Guess that beats the ride of the century.

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