When our sports heroes were our neighbors

Art Donovan, the Baltimore Colt great, died five years ago this month. He was a Hall of Fame player, but his national profile exploded after his retirement in 1962 through his many television appearances, including multiple showings on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Like the rest of us, Dave couldn't get enough of Art the raconteur and his colorfully hilarious tales of football and life.

Art was our neighbor. He, his wife Dorothy and her family owned the Valley Country Club, a pool and event hall smack in the middle of Towson’s Thornleigh, a suburban neighborhood my family moved to in 1960. My dad took my brother and me to Colt games on the country club's bus. The best part was after the game in the club's bar. While tending bar, Art gave us a blow-by-blow of the game and showed off his own cuts and bruises. The walls were covered with pictures of Art and his professional referee father Arthur Sr., who oversaw a dozen Joe Louis bouts including the two with Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938. As a 12-year-old kid, I was in awe.

Colt defensive back Carl Taseff lived five doors down from us; his daughter played with my sister. John Unitas' house was across the street from my mother's best friend in Campus Hills, a middle class Towson development we considered a step up from ours; we watched him mow his lawn once. Colts and Orioles hung out at the country club's pool every summer; Oriole pitcher Dick Hall was as nice a guy as you could meet. Friends remember attending the 1962 dedication of Triandos Drive off Timonium Road in honor of All-Star Oriole catcher Gus Triandos. Other friends working in child welfare recall frequent encounters with great Colt running back Lenny Moore who worked for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services for 26 years.

Three Colts owned restaurants along York Road: Ordell Braase's Flaming Pit to the north, Bill Pellington's Iron Horse in the middle, and Unitas' Golden Arm to the south. I was a busboy at the Iron Horse and got to drive Bill home a number of times after closing. I loved that he called me Herbo; it made feel part of the team along with Fatso (Donovan) and Gaucho (Taseff). Don Shula and his coaches had dinner there every Tuesday evening during the season. I served them water, and it took all of my composure not to dump it all over them; the rolls were another story.

Bill's son Mark is an established film director. In 1993 he made a PBS documentary, “Father's Daze,” about how Alzheimer's shrunk his father, this tough linebacker of a man, seemingly in half. It premiered at a state Alzheimer's Association fundraiser at the Senator Theatre. The Colt band marched down the center aisle playing Let's Go You Baltimore Colts, and News American legend John Steadman narrated a showing of the 1958 championship game. Many old Colts attended; I said hello to Art DeCarlo, a Colt defensive back who later coached the football team at my high school, Loyola Blakefield. Memorable doesn't do justice to that night.

Baltimore Bullet Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld readily agreed to be the face of a Read-a-Thon fund-raiser sponsored by the nonprofit I worked for in 1978. Jim Parker, another Hall of Fame Colt, owned a liquor store at Liberty Heights and Garrison for decades; at his death in 2005, Sun columnist Michael Olesker called him "the lineman next door." Oh, and when my dad died in 1988, Art Donovan came to the funeral home.

My wife Linda and I went to an Italian restaurant in Howard County early one night in 2009 or 2010. Art and Dotty Donovan were sitting at a back table with Colts tight end Jim Mutscheller and his wife, Joan. I didn't want to bother them, but after prodding from Linda, I went over and said I'm so-and-so, used to belong to the club, etc. Art remembered my family well and roared with laughter at how much he enjoyed throwing my brother out of the pool for various misdeeds.

The great players of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s lived among us mere mortals. They were our neighbors and even our friends. That didn't diminish their status as heroes one bit.

Herb Cromwell lives in Catonsville; his email is landhcromeagle@aol.com.

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