There was a message left on the office phone one cold night in 2001, but the caller didn't leave his name. It was just an old raspy voice wanting to say hi.
I recognized the voice because I had heard him talk several hundred times, so I called him back to give him my regards. It was Art Donovan. Before I finished my introduction, he cut me off and started another conversation.
"I know who you are, kid," said the Baltimore Colts' former Pro Bowl defensive tackle. "I read your stuff. If I was Brian Billick, I would have punched you in the face by now. But you write what you see and you write the truth. Keep up the good work. I just wanted to tell you that."
Those words have stayed with me throughout my career because they came from Art Donovan. He died Sunday at 89 of a respiratory ailment, and with his passing, he took a big part of Baltimore with him.
There are few athletes in sports who truly capture the heart of a town, and Baltimore has been lucky to have ones like Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Donovan.
None in that elite group was more symbolic of Baltimore than Donovan.
He ate like us, talked like us and worked among us. He drank Schlitz beer and burped on the airwaves. He'd cuss you one moment and praise you the next, but no one ever held any malice.
It was just Art Donovan. He was one of us.
He was the truth.
"He is Baltimore," said former Colts safety Bruce Laird, who played with good Colts teams in the 1970s. "Here is a guy that came from the Bronx, was in the military and made Baltimore his home. He wasn't just an icon on the field, but in the community. He was a gentleman and a free spirit. He didn't care what he said and how he said it, and he didn't give a hoot. He was himself all the time.
"If he didn't like you, you would know that within 30 seconds because he would tell you. He didn't worry about being politically correct or shy away from any issue. He told you what was on his mind, and he'd probably have spoken that way to the pope. Artie didn't judge people except on who they were. Man, what a character."
Donovan played from 1950 through 1961 during a time when there was no free agency and players still had to hold jobs in the offseason to make a living. The players lived in the community, and it wasn't strange to see them in local restaurants and bars before and after games.
Donvovan was a great player, a five-time Pro Bowl selection at defensive tackle, but he received just as much recognition after he retired as when he played.
Donovan could laugh at himself just as much as he could laugh at others. At one point, he became a regular on the "Late Show with David Letterman." In Baltimore, fans would love to hear Donovan tell football stories either as a host of his popular show with fellow ex-Colt Ordell Braase and local sportscaster Tom Davis or at his country club.
To get Donovan to speak, all you had to do was offer him a six pack of Schlitz.
At times, Donovan could be harsh in his criticism, and he would have been fired numerous times in the politically correct world of today's media, but Donovan seldom got in trouble because we all identified with him.
He could be loud and obnoxious, but he was blue collar.
He was one of us.
"I was young enough to see him as a player and fortunate enough to be around him as a broadcaster," said Davis, now with MASN. "It was a joy to be around him. He was an unbelievable figure and a funny character, one of the funniest men I have ever been around."
The last and only time I ever met Donovan personally came nearly a year ago at a rehabilitation center in Timonium. I was visiting a family member, and Donovan was sitting in the lobby with Laird. I introduced myself and then went upstairs.
About 20 minutes later, I went through the lobby again and there was Donovan sitting by himself. I went over and we talked about football for nearly 45 minutes.
He cracked on today's quarterbacks for being soft and chided the players who dance after every sack. We talked about the old Colts and the new Ravens, and finally I said goodbye.
"Hey, kid," Donovan said. "You keep doing what you do. Keep telling the truth. That's why I read your damn column."
And I felt good again, because it came from Artie Donovan. It was real and there was never any pretense with him. He will always be one of our Baltimore heroes.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun