Art Donovan played pro football for 12 years. The rest of his life, he spent telling everyone about it.
Donovan, 89, who died Sunday of a respiratory ailment at Stella Maris Hospice, played and talked a great game. He was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts and an engaging raconteur at banquets and on TV talk shows. His cherublike face, adenoidal voice and side-splitting tales of yore captivated generations of viewers who never saw Donovan collar a quarterback or take down a runner.
"Artie made a career out of telling people everything that he'd done right — and wrong — in football," said Ordell Braase, his teammate on the field and in the broadcast studio. "The diversity of his appeal was amazing. Everyone wanted to hug 'Fatso,' from young girls to little old ladies."
Donovan died just before 8 p.m., surrounded by 15 to 20 family members, said his daughter, Kelly Donovan-Mazzulli.
"My mom [Dorothy] was with dad to his last breath, as she was determined to be," she said.
Ten times, Donovan appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman," where he spun yarns about his youth in the Bronx, his hitch in the Marines during World War II and his experiences during the sanguinary years of the National Football League, when the game was played by "oversized coal miners and West Texas psychopaths."
Often, his stories were laced with self-deprecating humor and some choice four-letter words. Like beer, Spam and junk food.
"Dunnie had all of his stories numbered," said Alex Sandusky, a Colts teammate. "Going to games, he'd sit in the last seat on the bus, the widest one. That was our 'story room.' Then he'd say, 'This is number 46 coming up.'
"He was a classic — a great, fun-loving human being. If they can laugh in heaven, he'll get them going."
Arthur James Donovan Jr. was born in New York City, the son of a famous boxing referee. Arthur Sr., a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, officiated 14 heavyweight title bouts, including a number of Joe Louis' fights.
Donovan's grandfather, Mike Donovan, was a world middleweight champion who also gave boxing lessons to President Theodore Roosevelt.
But football was Donovan's love. Despite a modest high school career, he received a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame in 1942 but left after one semester to join the Marines. Stationed in the Pacific, he served as an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the USS San Jacinto during the assault on Leyte in the central Philippines.
After 13 months at sea, Donovan volunteered for the Fleet Marine Force, which landed him in the middle of combat on Okinawa. His citations, which included the Asiatic Pacific Area Ribbon and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, would later earn him a place in the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame — the first pro football player so honored.
"Here’s a guy that fought in World War II and played with the Baltimore Colts," former Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry said this weekend while attending the Hall of Fame festivities in Canton, Ohio. "I would say, ‘Artie, tell me about your World World II service.’ And [he would say], ‘Well, I got shot in the butt at Okinawa.’ That was typical Art Donovan."
Donovan's favorite war story? The time on Guam when he swiped a case of Spam, got caught and was ordered to eat it or go to the brig. In nine days, he polished off all 30 pounds of the processed pork.
His go-to jokes dealt with food and drink. Donovan liked to describe himself as a light eater.
"As soon as it's light, I start to eat," he would say.
And: "The only weight I ever lifted weighed 24 ounces. It was a Schlitz. I always replaced my fluids."
At war's end, he returned briefly to Notre Dame, then transferred to Boston College, where he made second-team All New England.
In 1950, the Colts picked Donovan in the third round of a special NFL draft. That team folded at season's end, as did the next two clubs for which he played — the New York Yanks and Dallas Texans.
"I helped kill three teams," Donovan said in retrospect.
In 1953, the Colts returned to Baltimore with the crew-cut tackle in tow. He would never leave again.
Strong, smart and surprisingly quick for his size, which ranged from 270 to 300 pounds, Donovan made All-NFL for four straight years (1954-1957) and played in five consecutive Pro Bowls (1953-1957).
"He had good balance and great agility," Buzz Nutter, then the Colts' center, once said. "One man alone could not knock Artie off his feet."
Playing alongside Gino Marchetti, a Hall of Fame end, Donovan anchored a Colts defense that helped Baltimore win world championships in 1958 and 1959.
"You can't fool Donovan twice with the same play, and on trap plays he has no equal," said his coach, Weeb Ewbank.
The Sun described Donovan thusly: "He blocks the passer's view for yards on either side, and he tackles a player like a house collapsing."
"How tough was Artie?" Marchetti said recently. "One game, he and [San Francisco 49ers tackle] Don Campora were going at it, calling each other an s.o.b. All of a sudden, Artie gave him a shot and I looked over there and Artie had a whole handful of the guy's teeth.
"The referee came over but didn't do anything because when Campora tried to tell him what Artie had done, he couldn't talk right."
Donovan's nimble feints drove opponents batty.
"He was always the hardest tackle for me to block," the Chicago Bears' Stan Jones once told The Sun. Jones, a Hall of Fame lineman who'd played at the University of Maryland, called No. 70 "the smartest tackle I ever faced. He was quick, like a matador. He'd move one way and go the other."
Donovan took pride in the fact that, during the 1956 Pro Bowl, he played on a kick-return team for the only time in his life. He delivered two crunching blocks to spring the Detroit Lions' Jack Christiansen for a 103-yard touchdown on the game's first play.
That same year, Donovan married Dorothy Schaech, a Baltimore pharmacist whom he'd met on a blind date. Their wedding reception featured a chocolate cake, shaped like a football, and inscribed: To Art Donovan — The Best Lineman.
Teammates called him "Fatso," and he cottoned to it.
"You know you're big when you sit in the bathtub and the water in the toilet rises," he said.
During training camp in Westminster, Donovan liked to saunter downtown, park himself in Harry's Main Street Grille and wolf down hot dogs, as many as 25 at one sitting. In his dorm room, he often slept with the television on. The TV, he said, kept warm the leftover pizza he had placed on top of it.
The Colts tried to curb Donovan's appetite by offering a $2,000 bonus every season he managed to keep his playing weight under 275 pounds. Sometimes he got the cash, sometimes not.
"His [weekly] weigh-in was a story," Marchetti said. "Donovan would take his clothes off, piece by piece, and weigh himself after each one.
"His last hope was always his [false] teeth. A couple of times he had to take them out to make weight."
Run himself into shape? Not Donovan.
"You could draw a 5-foot circle around him at practice and he'd never leave it," Nutter said.
Only once did Donovan ever win a footrace, a 30-yard sprint against a 300-pound rookie during camp in 1960. Fatso won by several yards.
"I felt like Jesse Owens," he recalled later. "I broke the tape with my arms up."
The rookie was released by the team that same day.
Easy to prank
Donovan was the perfect foil for their endless pranks, teammates said.
"He would cuss and carry on, but we knew he loved every minute of it," defensive back Andy Nelson said.
One night, in training camp, players released a live bat in his room. Another time, they hid a dead groundhog in his bed.
"We told Dunnie it was a six-pack of Schlitz, so he would pull back the covers," Sandusky said. "You never heard such swearing and commotion in your life."
At practice the next day, Donovan opened his locker and came face-to-face with the same critter.
"He ran over three or four guys, roaring out of that locker room," Braase said.
Donovan could give as well as take, Colts players said.
"He kept the rest of us [players] honest," tight end Jim Mutscheller said. "If someone got a good write-up in the newspaper, Artie would give him a bad time and say, 'So you think you're a big deal, huh?'
"He had a way of bringing guys down to earth in a joking way so they wouldn't get offended. That we had so good a relationship as a team was, in good part, because of Artie."
As a player, Donovan's biggest salary was $22,000. But football was about much more.
"It's a shame to take money for what we do," he told Marchetti.
It wasn't easy for Donovan to leave the game. Pressured by the front office, he announced his retirement Aug. 30, 1962.
"The Colts have been my whole life," he said. At 38, Donovan was the last active player from the original 1950 club.
"The big lug has been like the Chinese Wall all these years," the late linebacker Bill Pellington said at the time.
"I won't just miss him," Marchetti said. "A part of me has retired with him."
As a teary-eyed Donovan drove out of camp, a cherry bomb exploded underneath his car — one last prank on Fatso.
The Colts retired his jersey before 54,000 fans before the first home game. Donovan's gifts included a Cadillac, 70 pounds of potato chips, 70 pounds of pretzels and two new sports coats to replace those that prankish teammates were forever ripping off his back.
In acknowledgement, he said: "There's a lady up in heaven who must be very proud of the way the people in Baltimore have treated her boy from the Bronx."
"With that," The Sun wrote, "He [Donovan] turned and, with head bowed and a Colt jacket thrown over his shoulders ... slowly made the long walk across the field as the band played 'Auld Lang Syne' and the crowd rose and rocked the place with applause."
Said Ewbank: "He'll probably wind up being mayor some day."
Life after football
On Aug. 3, 1968 — 45 years ago Saturday — he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the first Colts player and the NFL's first pure defensive lineman to be enshrined there.
Donovan retired to run the family's liquor stores and the Valley Country Club in Towson. He might have gone quietly, had the country not discovered what his teammates already knew. Fatso was a ripping good storyteller.
He worked as a commentator for Colts games and as co-host of a weekly radio sports talk show with Charley Eckman. Later he teamed with Braase and WCBM's Dave Humphrey, and then Braase and sportscaster Tom Davis. Donovan also filmed a blitz of popular TV ads for the Maryland Lottery and ESPN.
His autobiography, "Fatso," published in 1987, made Donovan a minor celebrity. He appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," as well as TV talk shows hosted by Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, Craig Kilborn and Tom Snyder.
Audiences loved Donovan's sardonic wit and infectious laughter. Some examples:
• "In the old days, they'd fine you for being overweight. Now they make you a star."
• "What the hell, the players don't punch anybody anymore. In fact, some of them wear their face masks now so you can't even get your fingers in there."
• "Today [players] have dietician's food, weights and workouts. We had hot dogs, cheeseburgers, salami and bologna, and we did all right."
The late John Steadman, Sun columnist, called Donovan "a walking-around wonder of the world." Others labeled him "a modern-day Aesop."
Donovan said he just did what came naturally.
"I guess telling stories is an art. I never looked at it that way," he once told The Sun. "I just started talking, and everyone started laughing. So I kept talking, and they kept laughing."
For all the time he spent in the public eye, Donovan was also beloved at home.
"We're proud of him and the football, but he was also a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week father to his kids," Donovan-Mazzulli said. "He took us to school every morning and waited at the kitchen table for us all to come in at night.
"He loved his children and grandchildren and our mother more than life itself, and he would never have been able to bear seeing family members go before him."
Besides his wife, Donovan is survived by a sister, Joan Elizabeth Donovan of New York City; a son, Arthur J. Donovan III of New York City; daughters Debbie Donovan Smith of Towson; Christine Donovan of McLean, Va.; Mary Donovan O'Hern of Lutherville; and Donovan-Mazzulli of Lutherville; and seven grandchildren.
A funeral Mass for Donovan is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. There will be no viewing and interment is private.
For one who reminisced at will, Donovan never second-guessed his own life.
"Take me for what I am," he told The Sun. "I'm a nobody, like you or anyone else. I was lucky enough to play pro football, and everyone liked me. That's it."
One more thing, Donovan said. He wanted to go the way he had lived:
"If my wife don't send me off with a case of Schlitz in the coffin, I'm gonna haunt her."
Donovan at a glance
Born: June 5, 1924, in the Bronx, N.Y.
Colleges: Notre Dame and Boston College
Drafted: By Colts, third round of special selection draft in 1950
Family: Married 57 years to the former Dorothy Schaech ... Five children (Debbie, Christine, Arthur III, Mary and Kelly)
Career highlights: Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame (1968) ... U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame (2004) ... NFL champion (1958 and 1959) ... NFL All-Pro first team (1954-1957) ... Pro Bowl (1953-1957)
Personal highlights: Author of "Fatso" (his autobiography) ... co-host of several Baltimore radio and television sports talk shows ... longtime guest on network talk shows ("Late Night with David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno") ... pitchman for Maryland State Lottery and ESPN