With the death of Art Donovan this past week, sports lost one of its last genuine characters — in every sense of the word.
In 2013, athletes are considered characters if they are outrageous, such as Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson with his choreographed end-zone high jinks, or Chris “Birdman” Andersen, known for his coiffure and his tattoos. A lot of guys try to get our attention.
Donovan was that rare guy who didn’t have to try. He was as good on the field — he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his second try — as he was off it. After his retirement, he became one of the most recognized former athletes in the country and one of the best raconteurs the sports world has known.
Donovan, known for his agility at defensive tackle despite being 6 feet 3 and 300 pounds, was on the field for what pretty much everyone agrees was the greatest pro football game in history: the Baltimore Colts’ 1958 NFL Championship victory over the New York Giants. The Colts won, 23-17, in the league’s first sudden-death game, and 40 million watched on television. That number might not seem huge, but televisions hadn’t become widely available in homes until that decade.
Greatest game or not, Donovan was still telling stories and entertaining us years after it had ended. If Donovan’s personality was contrived, he should have won an Oscar. He appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and reduced both the hosts and their audiences to helpless howling in seconds. He never repeated himself, and he didn’t get laughs at the expense of others. Often, the jokes were at his expense. Self-deprecation is not a quality prevalent today; Donovan titled his autobiography “Fatso,” which was also his nickname.
“Flattop” would have worked as well. He had a face only old-time football could produce and a haircut that provided a perfect roof for it. Like many athletes who were part of the Greatest Generation, he left football during World War II and joined the Marine Corps, fighting in the Pacific Theater, including Iwo Jima. His former teammate, Raymond Berry, told NFL.com that he once asked Donovan about the war. “He said to me, ‘Raymond, I got shot in the ass on Iwo Jima.’ ”
If you are young enough to have missed Donovan during his heyday on the late night circuit, head to YouTube.com and check out some of his old clips. If you are old enough to remember Donovan, you should head to YouTube as well, just to refresh your memory.
With Donovan gone, Bob Uecker is perhaps the last of the “athlete comedians,” although Uecker — “Mr. Baseball” — became famous more through his Miller Lite commercials than his playing career. He is still an announcer for the Milwaukee Brewers.
And the new generation? Charles Barkley and, though not as entertaining, Shaquille O’Neal come to mind. And then . . . who else?
Donovan died last Sunday at age 89. He was a player and a great storyteller, and we’ll never see another guy like him. That’s sad for us, but it’s a darn good epitaph.
For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.