One of the funniest professional athletes you'll ever meet, Donovan could hold court as well as any player ever seen (or heard) in a post-game locker room. Unfortunately, Donovan died Sunday night at the age of 88, the Baltimore Ravens announced.
His wasn't solely the story of a cutup. Donovan was a veteran of the Pacific Theatre in World War II. He also was a disruptive force in the middle of pro football's best team of the late 1950s.
How disruptive was Donovan? Enough to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame in just his second year of eligibility. That was in 1968, the Hall's sixth class ever, meaning there was a backlog of players from the '20s, '30s and '40s waiting to get in. We're talking first-ballot material here.
Yet, all of that is immaterial, considering Donovan's legacy and overall impact on the game. Despite being named first-team All-Pro several times, he never took pro football too seriously -- unless it was kicking the butt of the guy in front of him, which he could do.
Rather than being all piss and vinegar, Donovan really was more wit and vinegar, bringing the middle days of pro football to a different audience by the force of his personality, and with a touch of humility. Like after his Colts beat the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, aka "The Greatest Game Ever Played," a contest that has been celebrated and romanticized for decades by NFL Films and every possible media outlet that covers pro football.
"I'll tell you how great that game was," Donovan said while on a conference call with reporters recalling the famous game 40 years later. "I'll tell you how important it was. I was born and raised on 202nd Street off the Concourse. (After the game) I was there in in front of Mr. Goldberg's candy store where I hung out since the time I was 6 years old. He comes out and he looks at me and he says, 'Artie, you big bum, are you out of work again?' He didn't even know I played football."
Yes, he played some football. Fatso was an original Baltimore Colt in 1950, an NFL adoptee from the defunct All America Football Conference that also provided the league with the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. Donovan played for the now-defunct New York Yankees in 1951. The next year, he and Marchetti were two of the few decent players on the NFL's first foray in Dallas: the Dallas Texans. They lasted only one year.
So, three years, three defunct teams, and Donovan's teams won a grand total of three games.
"You talk about building character," Donovan quipped.
Donovan's good humor wasn't a singular trait of the man. That is to say, this was one determined football player. Determined enough to make the Colts winners when the franchise was re-started in 1953.
Donovan made five consecutive Pro Bowls heading into the 1958 season, the year the Colts took off. Paired with Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti, as well as 300-pound Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb at the other tackle spot, the Colts could match up with anybody. Throw in a young trio of Hall of Famers on offense in Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry, and this special Colts team went on to win it all in '58 and '59.
Like Unitas and Berry, Donovan was an All-Pro performer every year not on athletic ability and strength training but on desire. "The only weight I ever lifted was a can of beer," Donovan once said.
In fact, the entire Colts organization from Unitas, Berry and Donovan on down had that blue-collar mentality, which trickled not only through the club but the community, creating a love affair between city and team. Under enigmatic owner Bob Irsay, the franchise eventually relocated to Indianapolis, yet Baltimore was such a football town that the success and support of the Ravens hardly is surprising. Some of that credit must be given to Donovan, whose colorful personality only made pro football more popular, particularly in Maryland.
"I asked Donovan about the war," Berry said. "He said to me, 'Raymond, I got shot in the ass on Iwo Jima.' "
That's who Art Donovan was. Be it during his appearances on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson or in his book "Fatso," or in commercials, Donovan would recant his myriad NFL experiences in a lighthearted way that made you feel he was on the level and not like he was an arrogant professional athlete who was way up here while you were way down there.
It was a gift. He was a gift.