Before he was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts, before he was a late-night wisecracker on television talk shows, before he was Fatso, Art Donovan was something else.
An honest-to-gosh, private first class, fighting U.S. Marine.
He has a row of ribbons from World War II at home in Towson. He kept the old uniform, too, though it's currently on loan to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Donovan hasn't worn it in decades.
"I can't get my arms in the sleeves," he said.
It's the man, not his dress blues, that counts, leathernecks say. Hence, Donovan's induction into the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame today at Quantico, Va.
Donovan, a five-time All Pro who helped the Colts win back-to-back NFL championships in 1958 and '59, will be enshrined along with Richie Guerin, a six-time NBA All-Star, and Ken Norton, two-time heavyweight boxing champion. They'll be honored at a luncheon hosted by Gen. William "Spider" Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
"I hope they serve Schlitz," said Donovan.
The trio will also be recognized tonight during a two-hour military parade at the Marine Barracks in Washington. The event is closed to the public.
Sixty years ago, as an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS San Jacinto, Donovan wondered if he'd see another sunrise. At 80, he can still hear the drone of Japanese warplanes.
"Those damn planes were like flies, comin' from all over," said Donovan, who served aboard the aircraft carrier from December 1943 to January 1945. "And the kamikazes! You almost couldn't knock them down. You'd hit 'em, they'd catch on fire ... and they'd still come right at you.
"Some blew up so close, their parts landed on the flight deck."
Also aboard the San Jacinto was Lt. George H.W. Bush, a Navy pilot whose bomber was shot down in September 1944. Rescued at sea, Bush would go on to become the nation's 41st president.
That October, the San Jacinto was supporting the assault on Leyte in the central Philippines. When the American fleet took on the approaching Japanese fleet, the light aircraft carrier became a part of the largest fleet battle in naval history, according to the U.S. Navy.
Donovan, after spending 13 months at sea, volunteered for the Fleet Marine Force, which landed him in the midst of combat on Okinawa.
"I spent two months in Okinawa, and though the island was allegedly secured, there were [Japanese] all over the place. You'd never really see them, you'd just hear their bullets whistling past your ear when you'd get into a fire fight."
That, and other Donovan recollections, appear in Fatso, the 1987 autobiography of a gregarious guy from the Bronx.
"Artie Donovan is a true hero with an exemplary record," said Gary Bloomfield, author of Duty, Honor, Victory, a history of athletes who served in World War II. "He was in some of the most brutal battles of the war. You can put him right up there with anyone."
Stationed in the Pacific to the end, he took part in some of the fiercest engagements - from Luzon to Iwo Jima. Among Donovan's citations: the Asiatic Pacific Area Ribbon (six stars) and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon (two stars). Each star represents a battle in which he participated.
"I wouldn't want to do it all over again," he said of his war experiences. "But I wouldn't want to have missed it, either."
Donovan is the first in pro football to reach the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. Established in 2001, the Hall honors servicemen and women who have excelled in both athletics and the military. Members include baseball greats Ted Williams, Rod Carew, Tom Seaver and Roberto Clemente, golfers Lee Trevino and Patty Berg, boxers Gene Tunney and Carmen Basilio and Olympians Bob Mathias and Billy Mills.
Some Hall of Famers have greater military qualifications than sports accomplishments. Frank Goettge, who starred on the Marines' football team at Quantico in the 1920s, saw action in both world wars and was killed at Guadalcanal in 1942.
Williams is the most notable inductee because of his athletic prowess and service in two wars. The Boston slugger pulled duty as a flight instructor during World War II and as a fighter pilot in the Korean War.
Said Bloomfield, the historian: "Williams gets more publicity because he was the swat king, but Donovan had a fantastic service record. He certainly stacks up with Ted."
Not all of Donovan's recollections are battle-related. Like the time on Guam, late in the war, when he pilfered a case of Spam. Donovan loved the processed pork luncheon meat and hid the booty under his tent, where it was discovered during a surprise inspection.
"Where did you get the Spam?" his lieutenant asked.
"I found it on the side of the road," said Donovan.
The answer earned him a trip to regimental headquarters.
"Why did you steal the Spam?" a colonel asked. "Were you going to sell it to the Japanese?"
"No, sir," said Donovan. "I was gonna eat it."
"Don't lie to me, private. Nobody eats that stuff."
The private swore that he did, and was given a choice: Eat the 30 pounds of Spam or go to the brig.
Donovan, then 6 feet 2 and 240 pounds, accepted the challenge.
"I got up in the middle of the night and made Spam sandwiches," he said. "I heated it over a Bunsen burner. I had the cook dip it in batter and deep-fry it."
Can by can, the Spam disappeared.
"I ate it in nine days," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun