Cowlings grew up in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood, where he was a member of the Superiors social club which held meetings at the Booker T. Washington Community Center. He attended Galileo High School, where he played football. He later attended City College of San Francisco, where he also played on the football team.
Cowlings was named an All-Americandefensive tackle after his senior year at USC. During that senior year, the 1969 Trojan team went undefeated, and Cowlings led a powerful defensive line which was nicknamed "The Wild Bunch" after the movie.
Cowlings was drafted 5th in the first round of the 1970 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. He was a starter his first three years in Buffalo, but he was traded to Houston after the 1972 season. He played all 14 games for the Oilers in both 1973 and 1974, but he played just 5 games in 1975 for the Rams. In 1976, he became a charter member of the Seahawks, after being signed off the waiver wire when the Rams released him at the end of the pre-season. He played just one game, due to an injury he suffered while playing for the Rams in an exhibition game against the Seahawks. He returned to the Rams in 1977, skipped the 1978 season, and finished his career in 1979 with the 49ers.
Cowlings and Simpson were teammates at Galileo High School, San Francisco City College, USC, the Buffalo Bills, and the San Francisco 49ers; they eventually became close friends and confidantes. Cowlings is most famous for his role in Simpson's capture on June 17, 1994, after a low-speed chase by police on Los Angeles freeways, after the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman several days before. Cowlings claims that Simpson pointed a gun to his own head, demanding he be taken to his home or Simpson would kill himself. The slow-speed chase was televised on live TV from helicopter cameras, and it is estimated it was viewed by approximately 95 million people in the U.S. alone. Cowlings was the driver, Simpson his passenger, in a white 1993 Ford Bronco. During the chase, Cowlings famously told the police "My name is AC. You know who I am, God damn it!" The chase ended at Simpson's mansion in Brentwood, where he then surrendered to police. Cowlings was charged with a felony for aiding a fugitive, and released on $250,000 bail. District Attorney Gil Garcetti said, however, that Cowlings would not be charged due to a lack of evidence. During the criminal trial for Simpson, Cowlings surprised the nation's media with a press conference a block from the Court house to announce his 900 phone number for questions to be answered by him to the public about everything except the murder and trial. Cowlings retained Beverly Hills public relations firm Edward Lozzi & Associates to conduct the press conference without revealing the reason or itinerary. Lozzi introduced Cowlings and his attorney Donald Re. Cowlings read a 1 minute prepared statement announcing the 900 number which was simultaneously unveiled visually in and around the entire room to the world's media. Reports that Cowlings realized over a million dollars from this $2 dollars plus a minute cost 900 number could never be validated. This press conference was in fact the only time Cowlings officially spoke to the media about anything related to the Simpson case.