As the crowd filed into the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen to attend Art Donovan’s funeral mass one man lingered on the church steps, a Baltimore Colts jersey on his back and his little dog, Max, at his side.
“I live nearby and came to pay my respects,” said George Faber, 42. “Not many folks had the magnetism Artie had; I can count them on one hand. He just made you want to be around him, even when he’s gone.”
Nearly 800 people, including a number of his football teammates, gathered Friday to pay homage to Donovan, the Colts’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle and raconteur who died Sunday, at 89, of a respiratory ailment. The Rev. Joe Ehrmann, a former Colt defensive tackle, delivered the eulogy for Donovan, whose blue-and-white jersey, No. 70, hung near his casket.
“All of Baltimore and beyond feel they know Artie and have been touched by his presence,” Ehrmann said. “Weave a tapestry of all that is good in Maryland over the past six decades and you’ll see Art’s life woven throughout that tapestry.”
Donovan “thought all the world was a party; he never met a stranger,” Ehrmann said. “Laughter was his medicine and it was most potent when he was laughing at himself.”
Though born in the Bronx, Donovan settled in Baltimore during his playing days, when he helped the Colts win National Football League championships in 1958 and 1959. Upon retirement, he became a go-to guest on the national talk show circuit and a celebrity with the publication of his autobiography, ‘Fatso.”
“He saw himself as part of a team that had a unique, almost Rockwellian bond with us — an enduring part of a team that never really left this town,” Bishop Denis Madden said in his homily.
Afterward, in a private ceremony, Donovan was buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, close by the grave of teammate John Unitas, in a temporary crypt awaiting the construction of a family mausoleum.
Teammates said Donovan wore the mantle of celebrity with characteristic humility.
“He was Mr. Colt, like Brooks Robinson was Mr. Oriole,” safety Andy Nelson said. “He’s up there (in heaven) right now, holding court.”
“No, Artie is taking over,” Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti said.
Running back Dick Bielski called Donovan “a 24-carat human being, no matter how famous he was,” and recounted his story-telling talents.
“In the 1960s, Art spoke at a communion breakfast, at a Catholic church in Loch Raven, where every story had a ‘hell’ or a ‘damn’ in it,” Bielski said. “Everyone laughed like crazy. If anyone else had done that, we’d have been run out of town.”
Donovan’s levity helped instill “a tremendous chemistry” in those champion Colt teams, Raymond Berry said.
“His humor and leadership brought a great balance to the club,” said Berry, a Hall of Fame receiver. “Yes, he was full of laughs and one of the great characters of all time. But he was also a great competitior and all-business on game day.”
Four times All-NFL, Donovan played in five straight Pro Bowl games in the 1950s. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, the first Colts player to be inducted.
Lenny Moore, the Hall of Fame running back, recalled him as “not only a team man but a family man” who served as a pallbearer at the funerals of both Moore’s first wife and his son.
“He was there when you needed him, on the field or off,” Moore said.
Some of the Colts attending, including Stan White, Lydell Mitchell, Don McCauley and Roy Hilton, played after Donovan retired. But that didn’t lessen their admiration.
“Artie draws generations together,” said Mitchell, a running back.
“He was old school,” said Hilton, a defensive end on the Colts’ 1971 Super Bowl champions.”You just sat back and listened, and some of him was bound to rub off on you.
“I called him King Arthur. It fit.”
In June, a number of old Colts threw a birthday party for Donovan at the Valley Country Club in Towson, which his family owns.
“Artie had the time of his life,” said White, a linebacker who’s now a radio color analyst for the Ravens. “He was telling stories to the very end, even though he had a hard time talking. His stories were who he was.”
Donovan’s side-splitting appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman” and other talk shows “helped bring the NFL to the casual fan,” said Joe Browne, senior adviser to league commissioner Roger Goodell. “He showed them a side of the game that they hadn’t seen.
“Art was a goodwill ambassador for the game, self-annointed or otherwise.”
Donovan’s persona resonated with fans like Richarad Hineline, of Glen Burnie, who attended the Mass wearing his No. 70 Colts jersey.
“I only met him once, at Mount Washington Tavern,” said Hineline, 50. “But he was one of us — a blue-collar guy, a person with real emotions, a Hall of Famer who never forgot his roots. I had to be part of the celebration of his life.”
In his homily, Madden said of Donovan, “Art was not perfect ... but while he walked this earth, he was consistently good.”
He also compared Donovan to Pope Francis, saying, “One of the toughest men to play a game, in an era ruled by tough men, endeared himself in the same way that Pope Francis has endeared himself to us — by his humility and humanity.
“Long after his football prowess recedes into the annals of the game and memories fade with each passing generation, we will fondly recall one of our greatest civic treasures,” said Madden, auxilliary bishop of Baltimore. “We will remember the stories and the gentle giant of a man, and surely will smile when we do.”
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