Art Donovan: No frills, just reality, humor and gusto

Art Donovan, one of the most popular players ever to don a Baltimore Colts uniform and for many decades after his playing days, died Sunday at age 89.
Art Donovan, one of the most popular players ever to don a Baltimore Colts uniform and for many decades after his playing days, died Sunday at age 89. (Baltimore Sun archives, The Baltimore Sun)

Todd Holden, photojournalist, writer, columnist and former Aegis reporter, reflects on the life of Art Donovan, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Colt player and gifted raconteur, who died Sunday at age 89.

First of all, I never, ever referred him as "Fatso," even though that was the title of his autobiography. I gave the book to my dad, who wasn't one to read fluff, and he loved it; it's still around my library somewhere.


Whenever Art Donovan was on TV, I stopped what I was doing to watch him because he was the real deal. Especially when he appeared on the "David Letterman Show," because you never really knew where Artie was gonna go and his open and honest responses to Letterman's comments were pure homespun humor... the best.

I worked with him several times. The funniest was around 1999 when Ray Bent, owner of Walter G. Coale, the tractor company in Churchville, hired Artie and me to host a big celebration of WGC's 100th anniversary. It was held at the Equestrian Center in Bel Air, and a huge crowd was on hand,


I was the M.C. and had to introduce the various dignitaries. Artie and I sat together and, after he took the stage, his jokes were "so so" and some really off color, and I wondered if Ray and his wife were getting a little nervous.

"No sir, not nervous at all, no matter what story he was telling, it was pure Artie, and we loved it. When Artie told a story, you just had to listen, I really liked the guy a lot," Ray told me later.

Artie could sense some of the audience not "getting it" with regard to some of his material. He turned to me.

"Whadda ya think?"

"You're doin' great Artie, keep it up," I told him.

That's all he needed. He turned it up another notch, the laughter picked up, the crowd at the farm fair pavilion was getting into Artie big time.

It was a great evening. I was honored to be sharing the stage with him. We had a chance to talk a little, rather he talked a lot, about the days when I worked for the Baltimore Colts in the late '60s. He had retired when I came on board with the team as a photographer, but I would often times see him at games and on sidelines. He was an awesome presence.

When the evening was over, we shook hands. He told me I did a good job and that I should "stick with it."

He jumped in a car and took off. What an evening.

On occasions when I was shooting weddings and the receptions were to be at Artie and his wife Dottie's Valley Country Club, I would unload my gear, get set up and then head to the bar, where I could find Artie, with his trusty Schlitz, sitting there surrounded by a veritable museum of professional football and boxing artifacts.

He was an interesting man, not sure I'd want to sit with him on a long plane ride, but, hell, never had that opportunity.

I was in Memorial Stadium the day Artie's No. 70 was retired. Lots of Harford countians were there, and many of us were taken by Artie's words to his mom, in heaven, from a kid from the Bronx who made the big time in professional football. It was very moving.


A mutual friend, former Maryland State Police trooper Ray P.C. Leard, wintered often in Puerto Vallarta, where Artie and Dottie also spent winters. They had been going there for at least 20 years, and Ray often hung out with the Donovans.

"Artie rode his little scooter along the Malecon (a walkway) along the beach. He had the greatest memory for old sports trivia," Leard recalled.

"A couple years ago, when Artie was 87, we were sitting in a sports bar, watching a big screen TV; he points at the TV and exclaims, 'He moved!'" Leard continued. "I said 'Artie what are you talking about, you don't see any yellow flags.' About that time the referee drops a yellow flag, then the camera zooms in on the lineman showing the movement of his left hand, and that's what Artie had seen with those old eyes and thick glasses."

"I never challenged him again on another call."

"I loved him, so funny, and the memory, details... along with his delivery," Leard added.

Art Donovan was truly a memorable sports figure: No frills, just reality, humor and gusto and, in a manly way, charm.

I am proud to have known him and to have once worked with the Baltimore Colts, thanks to an Aberdeen man, Dixie Walker, who hired me on in 1968.

Artie was one of a handful of great sports stars who called Baltimore their home, a great heritage thanks to regular guys like him.

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