Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer Art Donovan

Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer Art Donovan reacts Monday in a hospital room while watching the Ravens play the Steelers. Donovan, hobbled by a broken leg, had no shortage of opinions on the sport today. "I wouldn't have any fun [playing nowadays]," he said. "These guys, they're all in love with themselves." (Colby Ware/Special to The Sun / November 5, 2007)

Art Donovan saw a lot of stuff during his 12 years in pro football, but as the grizzled Hall of Famer settled in to watch the Ravens' game Monday night, something flashed on the TV screen that gave him pause.

"It was a picture of four players getting ready for the game by having their nails polished," Donovan said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"I said to myself, 'This is the beginning of the end.' "

But that wouldn't keep Donovan, the former Baltimore Colts great, from watching the game. When you're stuck in a hospital bed, you take your entertainment any way you can get it.

"C'mon in," Donovan said, beckoning a visitor into his room at Good Samaritan Hospital, where he is recovering from a broken right leg.

Donovan, 83, represents "The Throwback" - to the days when athletes played for love of game, for less money and for their teammates.

Not surprisingly, his 1987 autobiography is titled Fatso: Football When Men Were Really Men.

"Welcome, Fatso," a sign on the wall read. On the sill sat a bouquet from Frank Gifford, the former New York Giants star whose team Donovan and the Colts defeated for NFL championships in 1958 and 1959.

Now on the mend, the five-time All-NFL defensive tackle prepared to watch the Ravens play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football, a weekly ritual for millions. Here sat Donovan, in a wheelchair - his bum leg propped up with a pillow, a cup of ice water at his side and a look of disgust on his face.

"What a disgrace, watching a game without a Schlitz," he muttered. "Some S.O.B. is going to pay for this."

So, how did you bust the leg, Fatso?

"Broke my femur on a cruise with my wife, in Italy," he said. "I'd walked back to my cabin after dinner with half a plate of spaghetti when I leaned in to open the door. Turns out it was already open so I fell flat on my face like something from the Keystone Kops.

"They drove me to an American hospital in Rome, 3 1/2 hours away. Road must've had 15,000 potholes. I almost bounced out of the ambulance.

"At the hospital, when they lifted me into the bed they put my head halfway through the wall and knocked me out. So I said, 'Don't touch me. If I'm going to die, it'll be in the United States, not in the Middle East somewhere.' "

A week later, Donovan was flown home to Baltimore for surgery. He said he would have kissed the ground if he could have.

"I swear to God, I was so happy as we neared the airport that I didn't care if we crashed, as long as it was on American soil."

Since he retired in 1962, Donovan has been a yarn-spinning emissary for football and the cherub-faced visage of Baltimore, his adopted hometown. For nearly half a century, the Bronx-born raconteur has delighted fans with tales of yore - as Donovan remembers them - and his spin on the game today.

Ten times, Donovan has appeared on David Letterman's late-night talk show.

These days, he watches most Ravens games on TV, attending one or two each season. A rabid fan, he isn't.

"I'm not like some guys who, if the Ravens lose, are ready to jump off the top of M&M Stadium," he said, confusing the name of the facility. "There are other things in life besides pro football."

On the tube, the game began in a driving rain, reminding Donovan of the worst conditions in which the Colts ever played.

"It's 1954 and we're facing the Giants in the rain in an exhibition game in Louisville," he said. "The circus had been there the week before and nobody had raked the field. So every time you slipped and fell, you came up with a pile of elephant dung."

The Colts' linemen found a use for it, Donovan said.

"We flipped it at the other team."

On the screen, a Steelers defender breaks up a pass and catches the old-timer's eye.

"That's a great player, the guy with the long hair," Donovan said. "What's his name?"

Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl safety.

Three times, Donovan tried to pronounce Polamalu's name, then quit.

"I almost lost my [dental] bridge on that one," he said. "I'll call him Samson."

The Ravens trail 7-0.

On the Ravens' side, running back Willis McGahee carries the ball for a short gain, then peers toward the sideline as if he wanted a rest.

"Look at that!" Donovan exclaimed. "Every second play, he [McGahee] is looking over there, like, 'Can I come out now?'

"Stay in there!" Donovan hollered. "You're making $50,000 a carry!"

McGahee gets the ball again and fumbles. The Steelers recover.

Penalties mount quickly for the Ravens. Officials, Donovan said, have taken over the game:

"One guy throws a flag, and then all eight have to hold each others' hands for five minutes to discuss the call. Then one of them says, 'The guy was offsides.' What, he can't tell that right away?"

Pittsburgh leads 14-0.

Somehow, talk turns to players' helmets.

"Ours had only two bars in front," Donovan said of the 1950s headgear. "Helmets today must weigh 75 pounds. If I wore one of them, I'd run the 40-yard dash in about two weeks."

Would he like to have played nowadays? Donovan shook his head.

"I wouldn't have any fun," he said. "These guys, they're all in love with themselves.

"In my day, we made lasting friendships. Who did I hear from today? [Alex] Sandusky calls from Florida, [Ordell] Braase from Naples. Jimmy Mutscheller comes to see me," he said, rattling off names of old Baltimore Colts.

"[Center] Dick Szymanski, who lives in Florida, always calls when the doctor is here so the cheap S.O.B. can hang up and doesn't have to pay."

Donovan laughs, then stops. The leg hurts.

The Steelers score again and again.

"This is ridiculous," he said. "Geez, [Steve] McNair can't throw the ball. Turn the camera around. I'd rather watch the announcers."

A nurse named Kim brings Donovan a soda.

"You're missing one of the greatest games of all time," he tells her.

"The Ravens? I can't watch them because my [blood] pressure would go up and I'd wind up in the ER," Kim said.

Finally, with 4 1/2 minutes left and the Ravens trailing 38-7, Donovan can't take it anymore. The former Marine asks for a pain pill.

His evaluation of the Ravens' performance?

"I looked better than that falling into my cabin in Italy."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com