Art Donovan, colorful Hall of Famer with Colts, dies at 89


Art Donovan, photographed in Washington in 1957. (The Washington Post/TWP)
August 6, 2013

Art Donovan, a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts who played on two NFL championship teams in the 1950s and later became known for his colorful tales of football roguery, died Aug. 4 at a hospice in Timonium, Md. He was 89.

His death was announced by the Baltimore Ravens. The cause was a respiratory ailment, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Mr. Donovan thrived in the National Football League when the fields were muddy, salaries were low and violence was the norm.

About 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds, he was a boulder on the Colts defensive line for most of a decade and was once cited by Sports Illustrated as “the toughest man in pro football.”

He helped his team, under coach Weeb Ewbank, win consecutive NFL championships in 1958 and 1959, defeating the New York Giants both times.

The Colts’ first title game, played at New York’s Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958, ended in a 17-17 tie, then went into a “sudden death” overtime period.

Mr. Donovan made a crucial tackle before the Colts offense, led by quarterback Johnny Unitas, drove 80 yards in the growing twilight to win the game, 23-17, on a one-yard plunge by fullback Alan Ameche.

The NFL’s first overtime game, witnessed by 40 million viewers on nationwide television, captured the public imagination and became known as “the greatest game ever played.”

Mr. Donovan was one of 12 Hall of Fame players to take part — six of them Colts — but at the time he was not aware of the game’s significance.

“We had no idea whatsoever that we were involved in something they call historic now,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 2008.

After Baltimore won its second straight NFL championship in 1959, beating the Giants 31-16, Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule called the Colts “probably the best football team that ever played.”

Besides Unitas, Mr. Donovan’s Hall of Fame teammates included halfback Lenny Moore, wide receiver Raymond Berry, guard Jim Parker and defensive end Gino Marchetti.

Mr. Donovan, whose nickname was “Fatso,” was a gritty, trench-warfare player who excelled more through perseverance than style.

“He was strong and agile, a good athlete for a fat guy,” former teammate George Young, later general manager of the Giants, told Sports Illustrated in 1979. “Playing the line has more to do with feeling and reacting than with seeing, and Donovan was able to concentrate, recognize and react faster than anybody.”

He was a fearsome pass rusher but was particularly effective against the run.

He was named to five Pro Bowl teams before retiring after the 1961 season.

Mr. Donovan settled in Towson, Md., often appeared on local radio shows and made a series of commercials for the Maryland Lottery.

He owned a country club, where he did the painting and washed the pots and pans in the kitchen.

Even after he became a regular on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman” in the 1980s, Mr. Donovan remained closely identified with his adopted city and the Colts, which deserted Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984.

“Thirty years of my life I put into this team, as a player and as a fan,” he told former Washington Post sportswriter William Gildea for his 1994 book “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore.” “When I first came here in 1950 we were undoubtedly the worst professional football team ever assembled. A lot of guys on that team went into their ‘life work’ in a hurry. But in eight or nine years we became what I consider the best NFL team ever.”

Arthur James Donovan Jr. was born June 5, 1924, in the Bronx. (His birth date is sometimes given as 1925, but legal records indicate it was 1924.)

His grandfather, Mike Donovan, a 19th-century middleweight champion, and his father, Art Donovan Sr., a boxing referee, are both members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

The younger Mr. Donovan left the University of Notre Dame in 1942 to enter the Marine Corps. He saw combat in the Pacific during World War II.

After graduating from Boston College, he played with the original Baltimore Colts in 1950 and two other early NFL teams — the New York Yanks and Dallas Texans — all of which folded.

He was back in Baltimore in 1953 with the second incarnation of the Colts. In 1968, he became the first Colt and the first defensive tackle to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Survivors include his wife since 1956, the former Dorothy Schaech of Towson; five children, Arthur J. Donovan III of New York, Debbie Smith of Towson, Christine Donovan of McLean, and Mary D. O’Hern and Kelly Donovan-Mazzulli, both of Lutherville, Md.; a sister; and seven grandchildren.

In later years, Mr. Donovan became renowned for his rough-and-tumble stories of the old NFL, where fitness was optional — “The only weight I ever lifted was a 16-ounce can of Schlitz,” he said — but courage was mandatory.

“Despite all the moaning and gnashing of teeth over violence in the NFL over the past few years,” Mr. Donovan wrote in his 1987 autobiography, “I can safely say that anyone who didn’t watch us play hasn’t seen true violence in sports. In a way, I kind of miss it.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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