Angel, O. J.'s prep QB, finds end run 'unbelievable'

June 19, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

"I was driving to Joe Robbie Stadium in a heavy downpour," Joe Angel was saying. "It was coming down like you wouldn't believe. A typical Florida downpour. Dark, windy, gloomy. I've got the radio on. The press conference is going on out there.

"All of a sudden, I hear O. J. described as a double-murder suspect. They're saying that he's on the run, that's he's a fugitive. They're saying, 'We will get him.' As soon as they said those words, it hit home.

"It was unbelievable. You're hoping he's innocent. You're hoping for the best. Then, all of a sudden, he's a double-murder suspect. There's a warrant for his arrest. . . . It was the first time I really believed he did it.

"He was somebody I grew up with. And all of a sudden, he's in a situation he can't get out of."

They played football together at Galileo High School in San Francisco, Joe Angel and O. J. Simpson did. Angel was the quarterback. Simpson was the running back. And a fellow named Al Cowlings was an offensive lineman.

"We had a 21-game losing streak," said Angel, the former Orioles announcer now with the Florida Marlins. "O. J. and I played together two years on the varsity. Our sophomore year, we played on the JV.

"We inherited a 12-game losing streak, which we eventually extended to 21. We were able to build on that baby. We could score -- we had O. J. -- but we couldn't stop anybody. It was like a lousy pitching staff with a good offense.

"We finally beat St. Ignatius, the defending city champion, 31-28. I'll never forget that score. O. J. scored four touchdowns. I recovered the fumble that led to the winning touchdown. We went both ways. We were real men."

Angel chuckled. The football team, he said, was 75 percent Asian-American. Angel, 46, was a minority of one. He was born in Bogota, Columbia. His parents had moved to San Francisco from Chicago.

Simpson was raised by his mother in a housing project. According to the Los Angeles Times, he spent his teens as the leader of a gang, fighting in the streets and committing petty crimes, like stealing slabs of beef from a butcher's warehouse.

Angel doesn't remember it that way.

"O. J. grew up poor. He lived in the projects," Angel said. "I was lucky to be able to drive my dad's car in high school. I would drive him home once in a while. And when I didn't have the car, I'd sneak him onto the bus.

"I see people saying O. J. was a troublemaker. That's B.S. I never saw that from O. J. In all the time I knew him, I never saw him once get into a fight. I never saw him once pick a fight. He was likable. He got along with everyone. He had a great sense of PR.

"One of the reasons he never was in trouble was that he and Cowlings were so close. If you wanted to get to O. J., you had to get to Cowlings. And that wasn't a good idea. They were like brothers. And they managed to stay together, work together and play together the whole time.

"He blocked for O. J. at Everett Junior High, at Galileo, at City College in San Francisco, at USC. He ran interference for him in Buffalo. Now here he is, after all these years, still running interference. He was out there blocking for him. Just like it had been their whole lives."

Only this time, Cowlings was arrested on suspicion of harboring a fugitive after driving Simpson in his Ford Bronco. He was released yesterday on a $250,000 bond. Angel watched as his two former teammates led police on a nationally televised chase Friday night. He could barely concentrate on the Marlins' 6-5 victory over the Mets.

"I had one eye on the game and one eye on the freeway," Angel said. "It was the most bizarre thing. I was reading the wire reports between innings. It was probably one of the toughest broadcasts I've ever had to do.

"Here was the ballclub, playing very well, winning, with a chance to go over .500. I was unable to devote my full attention to it. In the clubhouse, it was like there was a 10-game losing streak. No one was saying a word. It was like, 'We won, big deal, what's happening with O. J.?'

"I don't know what happened. I'm still wondering. When I heard about the letter [earlier], I was thinking, 'He's dead.' It was nuts. You start thinking about your own fallibility. If it can happen to O. J., a guy with everything going for him, it can happen to anybody. I'm just glad he's alive.

"I remember seeing a little item in the paper a long time ago about the wife-abuse thing. No one made a big deal out of it. But maybe if somebody had made a big deal out of it, he could have gotten help. Obviously, he's someone in need of help."

Joe Angel kept reflecting back to Galileo High School.

G; "It's not the O. J. I knew," he said. "Not even close."

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