Growing up in Baltimore in the '50s, we knew these were the best of times: We had good food on the table (it has always been important there which butcher to use and where to get the crabs), a grass lot to play on, The Diner where we ate the fries and dreamed American dreams and, most of all, the Colts. Our beloved Colts. On a Sunday at 2 o'clock in the stadium, the roar would swallow the introductions: Gino Marchetti, Art Donovan, Big Daddy Lipscomb . . . One after the other. (To say nothing of Unitas.) They were the greatest. You can argue, but they were.
You know the rest, and you don't know the rest.
Unitas let his crew cut grow, Marchetti went into hamburgers, Big Daddy died, The Diner (the real one) was torn down, the Colts were taken to Indianapolis. Most of it figured: The trolley barn is Johnny's Auto Body and Fender, and Sam and Elmer's barber shop (What a duo! One tall and bald, one short and round, they did a soft-shoe, and had a calendar girl over the cash register) -- Sam and Elmer's . . . vacant. But the Colts move?
"I says, you're nuts, they're never gonna leave. First thing I know, I was watchin' TV, the 11 o'clock news and they have the Orioles packin' up in Miami and comin' north, and the next thing I know I see a Mayflower van and it's snowin'. Well, I said, it don't snow in Miami. I think, hey, maybe I better change the brand I'm drinkin' here.
"No, they were talkin' about the Colts, movin' out. In the dead of the night. They rode off into the dark, into the dead of night."
Art Donovan, old No. 70, is talking about his Colts as he drives his Chevy truck past Sam and Elmer's empty storefront, past what was the trolley barn, less than a mile from where The Diner was. Art Donovan -- constant in a world of turmoil, adopted Baltimorean and civic bedrock.
"Little Arthur" of the Bronx, son of the boxing referee, Art Donovan, "Big Arthur," the third man in the ring for 18 of Joe Louis' fights, including the 1938 rematch with Max Schmeling. "Little Arthur" was the kid on the subway from the Bronx who carried his father's small bag with his gray referee's uniform in it downtown to him on fight nights. Then, grown up to be one of the Colts (champions in 1958 and 1959) and their "Magnificent Seven" (Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, Marchetti, Weeb Ewbank and Donovan).
And today, at 62, in what he calls his "twilight years," marking his third epoch as an '80s media figure who has spawned a cult on David Letterman and another of squealy teen-age girls who saw him as "a big cutie" -- a 325-pound crew-cut dumpling -- diving into the goal-line pileup of hot dogs on the recent Maryland State Lottery "Instant Baseball Game" commercial that, as a lottery official put it, "sold out almost instantly."
Maybe there'll be another game with Donovan because Donovan'll be around. He has always been around. Owner of a tennis and swim club, into the empty pool of which he once slipped and dropped 23 feet -- no joke, he didn't crack the pool bottom, like some say, he lay in agony for an hour until someone found him in a broken heap. A bushwhacked blimp.
And a beer salesman. Schlitz. A man made for Miller Lite who has always drunk Schlitz, 12 to 18 cans a night. (And 20 to 30 hot dogs a sitting.) He doesn't need the money, he just likes the beer. That's why he goes to these liquor stores, pushing the brand he has drunk forever. Twenty-one years he owned a liquor store -- that's where he made his big money. Until, near the end, he was stuck up five times in a month. Once, a man aimed a shotgun at him. "It felt like I was lookin' through the Lincoln Tunnel."
Now, among all else, he's a two-days-a-week salesman who can get a proprietor's attention even when he's only semi-serious.
"Where's the Schlitz?"
"Where's the Schlitz? It's in the back."
"You told me you were goin' to put it up front."
"Well, do you want me personally to put it up front?"
"I'll put it up front . . . "
This is how much he likes Schlitz: "I went to California with my wife and we drove 11 hours up to Reno and I couldn't find Schlitz in Reno. You know what I did? I drove all the way around Lake Tahoe to California and they had Schlitz. I bought myself a case. Then I come out and a kid wants to start a fight with me. I said, I think I'm a little too big for you. 'Nobody's too big for me.' He said I had him blocked in, and I didn't. I got out of the car. I said, 'Let's think this over.' I called him a name and then I left."
Now, he has parked his truck and is walking down the sidewalk to Jim Parker's liquor store. Jim Parker, one of the "Magnificent Seven," old No. 77. From behind, Donovan's form fills the horizon, shoulders sloping like mountains under a tan raincoat. Like that bent-edged, black-and-white photo of him, taken from behind, leaving the stadium in the twilight, the shoulders then covered by a cape with a Colt on the back. Art Donovan, Gladiator. On the corner, youths gape. He's walking right at them.
"Hey, you're . . . "
"It is. It is!"
"Hiya, fellas." Said in a faint New York rasp, a big man with a little wave, reaching a new generation.
Picture Is Everywhere
He never sought fame. He understands it to be not of merit but accident. Three times it has happened. Every Bronx kid knew his old man. Then, himself, a giant who trod the earth, the old Colts' fun guy with a knack for knowing which direction a play was heading, then trundling laterally from his defensive tackle slot in plenty of time to stuff it. He made it to the pro football Hall of Fame. And now . . . Now . . .
"Now, my picture's all over the place with this lottery. We go to all these liquor stores and my picture's on the door -- they got glasses drawn on 'em, they got cigars stuck in my mouth . . .
"Is this going to be my claim to fame? Eating hot dogs? Seventy-two times I had to bite into the hot dog to do that commerical. Yeah, they made 72 takes. I kept biting. Cold hot dogs. Seventy-two bites."
How did fame strike again? First, by luck, NFL Films included him in a show on the golden age of pro football. Somebody from the Letterman show saw it. Then an agent in Atlanta saw Donovan and put him on a lecture circuit. Then somebody else called about the lottery commercial. Then Schlitz called. "I can't say no," he says.
He was happy the way it was. He's happy now. He'll be happy. "I have no ax to grind. I was lucky. I played. How many guys play high school, college football never play pro football? I wouldn't want to go back over my life. I've done it all. I wouldn't have wanted to miss the Marine Corps. I wouldn't have wanted to miss the war. I wouldn't have missed college. Or playin' for the Colts. I got all the money I need. Five children. I got a truck. I have no regrets whatsoever."
Donovan and Parker. Behemoths. Parker embraces the visitor he calls "Fatso Fogarty." Parker's hair is gray and he smokes a pipe, lights it frequently. He pushes his glasses back up the bridge of his nose after every guffaw. In the center of the floor, next to the Billy Dee Williams' Colt 45 poster, Parker tells about an old awards banquet: "We were up on the stage. The man was introducing us. He said, 'Art Donovan.' He stood right like this. He said, 'Jim Parker.' We stood like this. 'Big Daddy Lipscomb.' He stood up. BAMMMM! The damn stage fell. Everybody went into the basement."
They laugh so hard their bellies almost bump. What more can a man ask? They have their memories, and they still have each other.
Donovan's voice echoes through the big, 120-year-old, empty house of the Valley Country Club that he has owned since 1955. He's talking on the phone, in the kitchen. A serious-looking man who speaks softly is with him, holding a football and getting Donovan to sign it. The man is Jim Mutscheller, the tight end of the championship teams who caught the pass from Unitas that took the ball to the Giants' one-yard line in overtime of the game that ushered in the modern era of pro football -- "The Greatest Game Ever Played," 1958 in Yankee Stadium.
Mutscheller gathered in an unconsciously daring Unitas pass into the flat that caused coach Weeb Ewbank's heart to quake. Now, Mutscheller says he's going up the road to get Tom Matte's autograph on the ball, and Donovan says Ordell Braase is coming by. They've never drifted apart; it's just that someone's taken their team away.
In the bar, three generations of Donovans are on the walls. His grandfather, Mike Donovan, fought in the Civil War at age 15 -- his medals are up there -- before he became the middleweight boxing champion. ("Ahhh, he must have been some tough guy," says the grandson.) Mike Donovan taught prize fighting at the New York Athletic Club, where he worked for 40 years. He was succeeded by "Big Arthur," boxing instructor there for 55 years. There's "Big Arthur," pictured with "Little Arthur" at the Colts' training camp. "Big Arthur" ("the toughest man I ever met in my life") lived to be 90, well after he had seen his son play on the two title teams. "Big Arthur" is just out of that picture of "Little Arthur" and Richard Nixon in the locker room after the 1959 title game in Baltimore, this time an easier (31-16) victory against the Giants.
"I wanted to get my father in the picture with the vice president, but he was too busy talkin' to the mayor of New York. The mayor, Wagner, he's askin' my father what's he doin' here, and my father's tellin' him I play with the Colts."
"He asked me what I was gonna do with the money."
He got almost $5,000 that day. That was a lot. He had grown up in the Bronx with few material goods but 14 cousins within a two-block radius. He had been born in his grandmother's house and raised for several years, with his sister, in a small apartment on 202nd Street. "When I was 7, my father started makin' a little money and we got high class and moved two streets up to the Grand Concourse." He went to church and school at St. Philip Neri, and when he started getting big, his mother sent him up to the brothers' school, Mount St. Michael. When Donovan came onto the Yankee Stadium field for The Game in 1958 he heard a guy in the stands yell, "Ya better be better than you were at Mount St. Michael."
He was just "Big Arthur's" kid then. "Big Arthur," who was never so presumptuous on the day of a fight to take his bag with his ref's stuff (the pants, shirt, boxing shoes, bow tie) when he went to work at the New York A.C. The way it would work was, the afternoon of the fight somebody from the boxing commission would call him over at the N.Y.A.C. and tell him he'd be working that night and then "Big Arthur" would call home. "Mary, would you get the bag ready?" Every time. "Little Arthur" would take the bag to 50th Street and meet his father outside the Garden, or Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds.
They met again, "Big Arthur" and "Little Arthur," by accident, during the war, on Guam. "Big Arthur" had volunteered, even though he was in his 50s, and worked in USO sports tours. There, one day on Guam, this big troop came walking down the road. By God, it was -- could it have been anyone else? For then, he was big -- "Little Arthur!"
"So then," says Donovan, "they dropped the bomb and we all went home."
It was the beginning of his second epoch, highlights of which hang on the bar walls: a plaque certifying that Art Donovan has crossed the Arctic Circle, his wife Dottie with Pope John, a football from Colt Corral No. 5, a Boston College Hall of Fame plaque, a plaque on the retirement of No. 70 on Sept. 16, 1962, the "Magnificent Seven" portrait. A yellowed newspaper story titled: "Donovan Goes on Forever."
Jim Wertz comes in. He works for Schlitz and he'll go around with Donovan this day to six liquor stores. This is only Donovan's ninth day on the job. Gotta get the product moving. Donovan likes to say, "I drink more than they sell."
He drives his truck. "I just got that script about that movie down in Beaumont. I'm going to be in a movie. The big stars of it, evidently, are Bubba Smith, Dick Butkus and Alex Karras. But the script doesn't say what I'm supposed to do. I guess drink . . .
"Hey, Unitas lives right there. See where that white thing is. That's a church. He lives in the next big house. You gotta go up Mount Kilimanjaro. You get nosebleed goin' up there."
He pulls into a shopping center parking lot and he's talking about Marchetti. "Ooooh," Donovan goes. "He never said anything. Played alongside him for 10 years and he never said anything. The only thing he ever asked me was, what was the defense. I said, 'For cripes sakes.' We were in the same formation, a 4-3, 99 percent of the time. We never blitzed. They figured we should put pressure on the passer without the blitz, and we didn't want to blitz because we figured we were all doin' our job. Gino, he never said boo.
"The only guy who used to scream and holler all the time was Bill Pellington. Crazy. But tough. You know he played five plays with a broken arm?"
Into Padonia Liquors. A customer does a double-take.
"Hittin' anybody recently?" Donovan says to the man behind the counter.
The man behind the counter is Jim Wertz's brother, Charlie. Artie Donovan's Baltimore is a metro village, where everybody knows everybody and a good half must be related.
Outside, he points to a restaurant. "Up there is where I used to have my radio show. They must have had 500 people in this place, listening to this goofy radio show. Braase and I were on it.
"On my radio show, Miller was the sponsor. And I'd say, 'Give me another Miller.' And I'd open a can of Schlitz. The liquor store here, they used to send me up 12 cans of Schlitz on the house so I could drink the Schlitz."
He's driving along, remembering Big Daddy, 6 feet 6, who instituted the practice of helping up a player after he had tackled him. Some players and coaches would tell Daddy to "leave the guy alone, leave him down on the ground. But he'd tackle the guy, he'd pick him up. He figured that would get him some publicity. But none of us worried too much about publicity. We knew how good we were. The way you knew how good you were or not -- don't let anybody kid you -- is the guy you played against. He could tell you whether you were good, bad or indifferent . . .
"Fifty-eight. They say it was the greatest game ever played. I don't think it was. But if they say it was, who am I to say no? The greatest game was the '58 game here in Baltimore against the 49ers. They were beatin' us, 27-3, at halftime and we come out in the second half and we absolutely annihilated them. I mean, annihilated them. Unitas and Berry and Moore and Alan Ameche, our offensive line, they just killed 'em. In fact, I'd only get on the field to block for the extra points. I'd say to Leo Nomellini, 'You comin', Leo?' That's how I knew if he was goin' to rush. And he'd say, 'Hell no, it's all over now.' So you knew, he was just going to lean on you. But if he was to say, 'Yeah, I'm comin,' watch out, here they come . . . "
Everybody in the stadium screaming . . .
Jim Wertz: "Greatest fans in the world."
"They were. They were wild. I'm tellin' you, they were wild. This town, in 1955 till when I got through, this town was so wild that ladies used to knit us sweaters for your kids, hats . . . "
Into Fink's Discount Liquors. Big Donovan. Small Wertz. Bernie Fink says, "Now I know what they mean by the odd couple." Commotion. A customer talking to Donovan, Wertz talking to Fink -- Baltimore talk (the old guys, who they married, how they're still there). Like in "Diner."
Next stop: Pinehurst Gourmet & Spirit Shoppe. The proprietor with the handlebar mustache, who's the brother of a guy at Eddie's Super Market, one of the next stops, remembers Donovan from the days he was starting out, with a distributor. "He came in one day, when he was playing for the Colts, and I think we needed a case of Dewar's scotch. It came packed in a wooden case, with metal bands around it. He came in with it in one hand, like this. 'Here's your case of scotch.' Carried it like a little parcel."
Over to Anthony and Sal's, Donovan's old place. On the way: "Right down here, we lived together. Don Shula, I and Pellington. You know, in the years when you got hurt and there was a timeout charged against you, we had three guys on the sidelines walk up and down with Weeb -- it was Shula, Carl Taseff and Bert Rechichar. And if somebody got hurt they'd run out on the field and drag 'im off so we wouldn't get charged a timeout. God's honest truth. 'Go get 'im.' Guy have a broken leg, they'd pull him off the field . . .
"There's Anthony." He's wearing an Orioles cap.
"Hey, Anthony, got my picture hangin' up here?"
In back is a deli with meats and salads and slaw and cakes. Everybody's getting a sandwich to go, everybody but Donovan. He eats only one meal, around dinnertime. Wertz: "The one meal he eats is unbelievable. Twenty-five, 30 hot dogs. He'll take two hot dogs, two rolls. He'll take one hot dog out of the other roll and put the two hot dogs in one roll."
To Eddie's, on Roland Avenue. It's Donovan's town he's driving through, but it could have been otherwise. "In '54, I went up to New York to take the exam to go on the New York police department. They were going to let me come down here and play football for six months and go back and be a cop. Two of my uncles were inspectors and detectives and three other men who lived in my neighborhood were all big shots in the department.
"I would only have stayed a uniformed policeman for about six months and then I would have got into the detective bureau. But in the meantime, I got a job working here with Schenley. So I said, well, this is it. I got married. We bought the club. I'm not blowing my own horn or anything, but I'm a big fish in a small pond. Everybody knows me. Where in New York, all my next door neighbors didn't know I played for the Colts. They don't give a damn in New York."
Who's Blocking the Doorway?
Outside a drug store next to Eddie's, a man calls, over his shoulder, "Who's that guy blocking the doorway? Looks like an old football player." The cashier tells Donovan she'd been out to his club for a wedding reception and he knows her father's cousin, no less. Her husband used to be the radio engineer for the Colts games, way back, "when the guys sat out there and froze to death. Now they sit in a booth."
In Eddie's, at the meat department, Donovan orders liverwurst to take home. On the sidewalk, he says, "So I'm walkin' out without payin' for the meat. Way to be a salesman."
Past Pimlico race track and on to Jim Parker's. Above Parker's door is the "Magnificent Seven." Above the counter, his high-top cleats and Colts helmet, white with the blue horsehoes on the sides, everything dusty. Since 1967 they've hung there.
"Hey, I don't have that picture," says Donovan. "Is that us with the Giants?"
"This is the only man I know," says Parker, pointing his pipe toward Donovan, "who's got a million dollars and is too poor to have somebody to paint his pool. He got into the pool, fell off the ladder, buried down there. Couldn't get up and couldn't get out. They had to call the fire truck to pull 'im out."
"I'm serious," says Donovan. "The guy says, 'You think you can go up the ladder?' I says, 'I just came down on it.'
"They took my kneecap out. I broke all my ribs. I broke my wrist and my elbow. They got me to the hospital and they put me on the table and the table's too small. I fell off the table."
A man wants Donovan's autograph and he wants Donovan to draw a little star next to his signature. "Aren't you a Hall of Famer?" "Yeah." "Can I shake your hand?" "Yes sir." "Hey, don't break it." Big Parker shoos the man with, "You got everything. First time in your life you ever saw two Hall of Famers in one store."
'You Still Lie'
"I'm on the plane with Lenny Moore ," says Donovan to Parker, "and he's readin' the Bible. Lenny Moore on the plane readin' the Bible! Says he's a born-again Christian."
"He learned it from me," says Parker. "He said, 'Why're you so happy all the time?' I said, 'I'm a born-again Christian.' He said, 'But you're still sellin' this.' I said, 'Makes no difference.' "
"You don't drink?" asks Donovan.
"You still lie, though."
Driving home, Donovan says, "So many great players . . . And the guys you didn't hear about, they were great, too. Like Alex Sandusky. Alex Karras called me, first time I ever talked to him. I said, 'We often talk about you, Alex.' Alex Sandusky and me. He said, 'You know, you were on your way out when I started, but Shula told me to watch all your movies, the way you played.' He said, 'As far as I'm concerned, you were the best.' Now he didn't have to say that because he was a good football player himself."
Pulling in the long driveway, where his big brick home sits next to the even bigger club house, Donovan remembers. He's late for his 10-year-old's car pool. But then he knows his wife, Dottie, his long love and partner in the club, without whom he'd make no decision and without whom life could not be this way, he knows Dottie's picked up the kids. He knows this because when he rounds the bend, her new creamy 420 Mercedes SEL -- "$46,000" -- is in the driveway. She likes the Mercedes; give him the truck.
"I'll be around," he says.
With a limp not from football but the fall into the empty pool, he heads inside, walking off as he had in his cape Sunday afternoons in the dusk at the stadium, unmistakable as ever from behind with the shoulders and the crew cut, walking away from us again but never, never out of our lives.