Art Donovan, the first Baltimore Colt elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Sunday of a respiratory ailment. He was 89.
Donovan was also the first true defensive lineman elected to the Hall and Saturday marked the 45th anniversary of his induction.
Donovan was also a hall of fame storyteller. He’s better known to a younger generation for his 10 appearances with David Letterman than for his football exploits.
“Artie made a career out of telling people everything he’d done right—and wrong—in football,” teammate Ordell Braase told the Baltimore Sun. “The diversity of his appeal was amazing. Everyone wanted to hug ‘Fatso,’ from young girls to little old ladies.”
Donovan was drafted out of Boston College by the original Baltimore Colts in 1950. That team folded after his rookie season. He signed with the New York Yanks in 1951. They ceased operations and became the Dallas Texans for 1952.
In 1953, the Texans went belly-up. As Donovan liked to say, “I helped kill three teams.” The Texans moved to Baltimore, and became the Colts we remember. And Donovan never left. “The Colts have been my whole life,” Donovan said when he retired in 1962.
A giant in the 1950s at 6’3” and 275 pounds, Donovan was amazingly agile. “He was always the hardest tackle for me to block,” the Bears Hall of Fame tackle Stan Jones told the Sun. “The smartest tackle I ever faced. He was quick, like a matador. He’d move one way, and go the other.”
“Some of the greatest football ever played by a defensive tackle was played by Art Donovan,” the late Hall of Fame center Jim Ringo once told ESPN. “He was one of the greatest people I played against all my life.”
“He had good balance and great agility,” Colts center Buzz Nutter told the Sun. “One man alone could not knock Artie off his feet.”
His Colts coach Weeb Ewbank once told the Sun about the man who helped win NFL titles in 1958 and 1959: “You can’t fool Donovan twice with the same play. And on trap plays he has no equal.”
Donovan was tough too. He grew up in the Bronx, the son of Hall of Fame boxing referee Arthur Donovan. His grandfather, Mike Donovan, once held the world middleweight championship, and gave boxing lessons to Theodore Roosevelt.
“One game, he and [49ers tackle] Don Campora were going at it,” Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti, who played beside Donovan for 10 years, told the Sun recently. “All of a sudden, Artie gave him a shot, and I looked over there and Artie had a whole handful of the guy’s teeth.
“The referee came over, but didn’t do anything because when Campora tried to tell him what Artie had done, he couldn’t talk right.”
The Colts gave Donovan an annual incentive of $2,000 to keep his weight under 275 pounds. That was quite an incentive for someone who never made more than $22,000 a year. Also quite the challenge.
“I’m a light eater,” Donovan liked to say. “When it got light, I started eating.” In “Fatso,” his autobiography, he wrote, “I’ve never been a gourmet eater. Kosher hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pizza, baloney and a couple cases of Schlitz are all I’d need on a desert isle.”
Of course, Donovan offset his diet with plenty of exercise. “The only weight I ever lifted weighed 24 ounces,” Donovan liked to say. “It was a Schlitz. I always replaced my fluids!”
“You could draw a 5-foot circle around him at practice,” Nutter told the Sun, “and he’d never leave it.”
“His weekly weigh-in was a story,” Marchetti told the Sun. “Donovan would take his clothes off piece by piece, and weigh himself after each one. His last hope was always his false teeth. A couple of times he had to take them out to make weight.”
“You know you’re big,” Donovan used to say, “When you sit in the bathtub, and the water in the toilet rises.”
Donovan served with distinction in the Pacific during World War II, eventually becoming the first pro football player in the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.
“Here’s a guy that fought in World War II,” Hall of Fame receiver and Colts teammate Raymond Berry told the Sun over the weekend. “I would say, ‘Artie, tell me about your World War II service.’ [He’d say] ‘Well, I got shot in the butt at Okinawa.’ That was typical Art Donovan.”
Donovan remained true to himself during his war service. He once procured himself a case of Spam. Upon discovery, he was given a choice: Eat the meat, or go to the brig. It took Donovan nine days, but he polished off all 30 pounds of Spam.
Looking back on his life, Donovan told the Sun, “I guess telling stories is an art. I never looked at it that way. I just started talking, and everybody started laughing. So I kept talking, and they kept laughing.
“Take me for what I am. I’m a nobody, like you or anyone else. I was lucky enough to play pro football, and everyone liked me. That’s it.”
Donovan even let us know exactly how he wanted to go out. “If my wife don’t send me off with a case of Schlitz in the coffin, I’m gonna haunt her!”