YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Art Donovan dies at 89; Pro Football Hall of Famer

Art Donovan, a defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts, was an engaging raconteur.

August 05, 2013|By Mike Klingaman
  • Art Donovan was a defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts whose hilarious stories about his football career enabled him to maintain his popularity long after his retirement and election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Art Donovan was a defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts whose hilarious…

Art Donovan played pro football for 12 years. He spent the rest of his life telling everyone about it.

Donovan, 89, who died Sunday of a respiratory ailment at a Baltimore hospice, played and talked a great game. He was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts and an engaging raconteur. His cherubic face, adenoidal voice and side-splitting tales of yore captivated generations of viewers who never saw Donovan collar a quarterback or take down a runner.

Donovan appeared 10 times on "Late Night With David Letterman," where he spun yarns about his youth in the Bronx, his hitch in the Marines during World War II and his playing days in the NFL.

Often, his stories were laced with self-deprecating humor and some choice four-letter words. Like beer, Spam and junk food.

"Dunnie had all of his stories numbered," said Alex Sandusky, a Colts teammate. "Going to games, he'd sit in the last seat on the bus, the widest one. That was our 'story room.' Then he'd say, 'This is No. 46 coming up.' "

Arthur James Donovan Jr. was born June 5, 1924, in New York City. His father, Arthur Sr., was a boxing referee who officiated 14 heavyweight title bouts, including a number of Joe Louis' fights, and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Football was Donovan's love. He received a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame in 1942 but left after one semester to join the Marines. Stationed in the Pacific, he served as an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier San Jacinto during the assault on Leyte in the central Philippines.

At war's end, he returned briefly to Notre Dame, then transferred to Boston College. In 1950, the Colts picked Donovan in the third round of a special NFL draft. That team folded at season's end, as did the next two clubs for which he played — the New York Yanks and Dallas Texans. In 1953, the Colts returned to Baltimore with the crew-cut tackle in tow. He would never leave again.

Strong, smart and surprisingly quick for his size, which ranged from 270 to 300 pounds, Donovan, nicknamed "Fatso" by his teammates, made All-NFL for four straight years (1954-57) and played in five consecutive Pro Bowls (1953-57).

"He had good balance and great agility," Buzz Nutter, then the Colts' center, once said. "One man alone could not knock Artie off his feet."

Playing alongside Gino Marchetti, a Hall of Fame end, Donovan anchored a Colts defense that helped Baltimore win world championships in 1958 and 1959.

"You can't fool Donovan twice with the same play, and on trap plays he has no equal," said his coach, Weeb Ewbank.

The Sun described Donovan thus: "He blocks the passer's view for yards on either side, and he tackles a player like a house collapsing."

Donovan's nimble feints drove opponents batty.

"He was always the hardest tackle for me to block," the Chicago Bears' Hall of Fame lineman Stan Jones once told the Baltimore Sun. Jones called No. 70 "the smartest tackle I ever faced. He was quick, like a matador. He'd move one way and go the other."

Donovan retired before the 1962 season to run his family's liquor stores and a country club. He might have gone quietly, had the country not discovered what his teammates already knew. Fatso was a ripping-good storyteller.

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, Donovan worked as a commentator for Colts games and as co-host of a weekly radio sports talk show.

His autobiography, "Fatso," published in 1987, made Donovan a minor celebrity. He appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," as well as TV talk shows hosted by Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, Craig Kilborn and Tom Snyder.

Audiences loved Donovan's sardonic wit and infectious laughter. Some examples:

•"In the old days, they'd fine you for being overweight. Now they make you a star."

•-"What the hell, the players don't punch anybody anymore. In fact, some of them wear their face masks now so you can't even get your fingers in there."

•-"Today [players] have dietitians' food, weights and workouts. We had hot dogs, cheeseburgers, salami and bologna, and we did all right."

Donovan said he simply did what came naturally.

"I guess telling stories is an art. I never looked at it that way," he once told the Baltimore Sun. "I just started talking, and everyone started laughing. So I kept talking, and they kept laughing."

Donovan is survived by his wife of 57 years, Dorothy; five children; seven grandchildren; and a sister.

Los Angeles Times Articles