BALTIMORE — Art Donovan, the lineman whose hilarious stories about his football career enabled him to maintain his popularity long after his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Sunday night. He was 89.
Donovan died at 7:20 p.m. at Stella Maris Hospice in Baltimore, according to Kevin Byrne, senior vice president of public and community relations for the Baltimore Ravens.
Donovan made a name for himself as a feisty defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts, helping the team to world championships in 1958 and 1959. He also spent single seasons with the New York Yanks and Dallas Texans in a career that lasted from 1950 through 1961.
“We lost a friend, one of the finest men and one of the greatest characters we were fortunate to meet in this community and in this business,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. “Baltimore is now without one of its best and someone who was a foundation for the tremendous popularity of football in our area. The world is not as bright tonight because we lost someone who could make us all smile.”
Voted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, Donovan was an outstanding lineman and an even better storyteller. Long after his career was over, Donovan made a living on the talk-show circuit, weaving yarns about the NFL’s good old days — as he put it, “When men were, well, men.”
Donovan was much like Bob Uecker, who also became popular on late-night talk shows through his stories about sports. But Uecker’s game was baseball, and his schtick dealt with his limited abilities. Donovan performed on the football field as well as anyone at his position, even though he once said the only weight he ever lifted was a beer can.
“Some of the greatest football ever played by a defensive tackle was played by Art Donovan,” said Hall of Fame center Jim Ringo, who died in 2007. “He was one of the greatest people I played against all my life.”
Donovan played in the 1958 championship game between the Colts and New York Giants, a contest that was decided in overtime and ultimately tabbed by some football historians as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The winner’s share was $4,700. The most Donovan ever earned in one season was $22,000.
But Donovan got a million dollars’ worth of memories and more than enough material for storytelling. Once, he filled a hotel shower stall with water and went for a dip. Things went swimmingly until the shower door burst open, flooding his room and the one below it.
Donovan had a thousand more stories like that, many of which were chronicled in his autobiography, appropriately titled, Fatso. Donovan liked to say he was a light eater — “When it got light, I started eating.”
He was hardly particular about what he ate (or drank), which could explain why he spent much of his life hovering around 300 pounds, although the playing weight of the 6-foot-3 Donovan was listed at 265.
“I’ve never been a gourmet eater,” he wrote. “Kosher hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pizza, baloney, and a couple of cases of Schlitz are all I’d need on a desert isle.”
Donovan’s father was Arthur J. Donovan Sr., arguably the most famous fight referee of all time. The elder Donovan was the third man in the ring at 19 of Joe Louis’ title fights and some 150 championship bouts in all.
When the younger Donovan grew up and left the tough New York neighborhood of his youth, he fought in World War II and played college football at Notre Dame and Boston College. While he was on the football field, he would just as soon step on a guy’s hand than shake it.
Off the field, however, he was nothing more than a big teddy bear.
The late John Steadman, a sportswriter for The (Baltimore) Sun who covered the Colts in their glory years, once said, “Art is a tremendous example for everyone, a wonderful Santa Claus-type individual.”
Indeed, Donovan often played the role of Saint Nick at the team’s annual Christmas party. His good cheer was no act.
“Wherever Artie goes, people always crowd around him, and he makes them laugh,” former Colt Dick Syzmanski once said. “Isn’t that a gift?”
Donovan broke into professional football in 1950 with the Colts, who folded after his rookie season. He played with the Yanks in 1951 and Texans in 1952 before the Dallas franchise moved to Baltimore and became the second version of the Colts.