The NFL has seen its share of characters since being founded in 1920.
These are the players who were a menace on the field and the life of the party off the field.
One character in particular, former Baltimore Colts defensive tackle Art Donovan, was a man’s man who turned his life and career experiences into near theatre.
Donovan played 12 years in the NFL and enjoyed every second of his career.
He also fought valiantly in the Pacific Theatre during WWII.
Donovan’s tales of life in the trenches as a Marine and a defensive linemen are still recollected with fondness today.
This is the humorous story of the life and career of Art Donovan.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) May 12, 2020
Arthur James Donovan was born on June 5, 1924 in Bronx, New York.
By the time Art was born, the Donovan family had been immersed in sports going back decades.
Donovan’s grandfather, Mike Donovan, was a world middleweight boxing champion who also taught President Theodore Roosevelt how to box.
Donovan’s father, Arthur Sr., was a boxing referee who officiated 14 heavyweight title bouts.
Most of the title bouts he oversaw involved Joe Louis.
Both Donovan’s father and grandfather are members of the Boxing Hall of Fame.
Donovan played football at Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx.
He played well enough to get attention from a number of large colleges.
He eventually chose a scholarship offer from Notre Dame.
Military Service and a Spam Challenge
Donovan was in South Bend for only a semester before he left to join the Marines.
WWII was in full swing by the time he entered college and Donovan wanted to do his part to help the war effort.
In April of 1943, Donovan officially enlisted.
Before the Colts and his Hall of Fame career–before Boston College even–Art Donovan was a US Marine in WWII… #fb
— Jim Saccomano (@broncos_sacco) August 5, 2013
After boot camp, Donovan reported to the Pacific Theatre and served as an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS San Jacinto.
An interesting side note, a pilot by the name of George H.W. Bush was also stationed on the San Jacinto at the same time Donovan was.
Donovan later recollected the images and sounds he experienced while fighting the Japanese during the war.
“Those damn (Japanese) planes were like flies, comin’ from all over,” said Donovan in a 2004 interview. “And the kamikazes! You almost couldn’t knock them down. You’d hit ’em, they’d catch on fire … and they’d still come right at you. Some blew up so close, their parts landed on the flight deck.”
After spending over a year at sea, Donovan volunteered for the Fleet Marine Force.
These were the Marine troops who saw action on the ground and his new post put Donovan in the thick of action.
“I spent two months in Okinawa, and though the island was allegedly secured, there were [Japanese] all over the place. You’d never really see them, you’d just hear their bullets whistling past your ear when you’d get into a fire fight.”
Donovan continued to take part in battles in the South Pacific until the war ended.
His time as a ground soldier included battles from Luzon to Iwo Jima.
Donovan received numerous citations for his service.
Among the citations were the Asiatic Pacific Area Ribbon (six stars) and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon (two stars).
Each star represents a battle in which he participated.
“I wouldn’t want to do it all over again,” Donovan said of his war experiences. “But I wouldn’t want to have missed it, either.”
Not all of Donovan’s war experiences were negative.
Fitting for his personality, Donovan was once reprimanded by a superior officer.
After Donovan made off with the prize, he hid it under his tent.
It was found by his lieutenant during an inspection.
“Where did you get the Spam?” his lieutenant asked. “I found it on the side of the road,” said Donovan.
Donovan’s response was unbelievable to his lieutenant and he was shipped to regimental headquarters to be questioned further.
A colonel was the next to grill Donovan about the stolen pork product.
“Why did you steal the Spam?” the colonel asked. “Were you going to sell it to the Japanese?”
“No, sir,” said Donovan. “I was gonna eat it.”
“Don’t lie to me, private. Nobody eats that stuff.”
Donovan swore that he did intend to eat the “stuff.”
So, the colonel gave him a choice.
Either eat all 30 pounds of the Spam or he would be sent to the brig.
Not one to back away from a challenge, especially involving food, Donovan accepted the opportunity.
“I got up in the middle of the night and made Spam sandwiches,” Donovan said. “I heated it over a Bunsen burner. I had the cook dip it in batter and deep-fry it.”
Eventually, all 30 pounds disappeared and Donovan was spared a trip to the clink.
“I ate it in nine days,” he said.
Return to College
After leaving the service, Donovan went back to college.
However, he decided to matriculate to Boston College instead of returning to Notre Dame.
Donovan played well for the Eagles and became a stalwart defensive lineman, even if he wasn’t well known.
In the 1947 NFL Draft, Donovan was selected with the 204th overall pick in the 22nd round by the New York Giants.
This was during his junior year in college and Donovan wanted to continue his studies so he could graduate.
He was eventually drafted again.
This time by the Baltimore Colts in the 1950 Draft after he had graduated with his bachelor degree.
The Lean Years, 1950-1952
Donovan made his mark right away as a rookie.
He started all 12 games in 1950 and was recognized as an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, this iteration of the Colts dissolved in early 1951.
That temporarily left Donovan as a free agent, although he was quickly snapped up by the Cleveland Browns.
During a scrimmage with the Browns, Donovan was injured and couldn’t play.
Cleveland traded him to the New York Yankees football team where he started every game in ‘51.
After the season, the Yankees left New York and found a new home in Dallas.
Once in the Lone Star state, the Yanks changed their name to the Texans.
In 1952, Donovan saw action in six games, starting in four of them.
The Texans folded after 1952 and Baltimore was awarded a new franchise the same year.
A number of the Texans players, including Donovan, then joined the newly formed Colts for the upcoming 1953 season.
Finally settled in one town for more than a year, Donovan and the Colts began slowly improving as a team.
In 1953 and 1954, the Colts finished with a 3-9 record.
1955 saw a 5-6-1 season and 1956 ended 5-7.
The team experienced their first winning season in 1957 when they went 7-5.
Donovan found his footing and became one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.
Beginning with the 1953 season, he was voted to the Pro Bowl five straight times (1953-1957).
During this stretch, Donovan was also voted as a First-team All-Pro four times (1954-1957).
In addition to his stellar play, Donovan was quickly becoming a notable goof ball in NFL circles.
For example, he once remarked that he was a light eater and further explained his meaning.
“I never started eating until it was light,” he joked.
Donovan was also not one for working out, stretching, or anything else involving physical exercise (other than playing football).
He quipped that he did 13 pushups…in 13 years of training camps.
— ThePostGame (@ThePostGame) April 7, 2017
Donovan preferred to show his manhood by playing a good portion of his career without a face mask.
During a game against Los Angeles one year, Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin grew tired of Donovan’s persistent pass rush.
Noting that Donovan was sans face mask, Van Brocklin threw a pass right at Donovan’s face during a play.
The result was a loss of down for the Rams, but a healthy respect of Van Brocklin by Donovan.
“I couldn’t believe he’d just waste a play like that,” Donovan wrote. “I guess he was mad. You have to respect a guy like that.”
Baltimore and Donovan Reach the Promised Land
By the time the 1958 season arrived, Baltimore had built a team for the ages.
The Colts were led by quarterback Johnny Unitas, offensive lineman Jim Parker, running back Alan Ameche, and receivers Lenny Moore (who also played halfback) and Ray Berry.
(Berry once asked Donovan about his time in the war.
Donovan told Berry, “Raymond, I got shot in the ass on Iwo Jima.”).
Joining Donovan on the defensive line were Baltimore legends Gino Marchetti and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) March 15, 2020
Baltimore began the ‘58 season with six straight wins.
When Week 11 arrived, the Colts were one of the best teams in the league with a 9-1 record.
(The only loss during that stretch was to the New York Giants).
The Week 11 game was witnessed by a whopping 100,202 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The assembled masses watched as the Colts were upset by the Rams 30-28.
The following week, the Colts lost again, this time to San Francisco 21-12.
Even with a 9-3 overall record, there were some doubters as Baltimore headed to the NFL title game on a two game losing streak.
Three days after Christmas on December 28, 1958, the Colts traveled to New York City to face the Giants for the second time that season.
New York had also finished the season 9-3 and were trying to win their second world championship in three years.
At halftime, the Colts were leading 14-3 after an Ameche touchdown run and a Berry touchdown reception from Unitas.
The Giants stormed back in the second half and scored 14 unanswered points to go ahead 17-14.
Colts kicker Steve Myhra kicked a 20 yard field goal before the 4th quarter ended to tie the game at 17 all.
Colts. Giants. 1958 NFL Championship.
The Greatest Game Ever Played is officially the #1 game in @NFL history.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) October 5, 2019
When the game clock expired with a tie, it officially became the first NFL playoff game to be decided in sudden death overtime.
At that moment, none of the players had never heard of overtime.
Unitas later recalled the moment.
“When the game ended in a tie, we were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, ‘Send the captain out. We’re going to flip a coin to see who will receive.’ That was the first we heard of the overtime period.”
Head referee Ron Gibbs gave the overtime rules to both teams.
“The first team to score, field goal, safety, or touchdown, will win the game, and the game will be over.”
Receiving the ball first, Unitas marched the Colts 80 yards downfield in 13 plays.
Both Ameche and Berry made numerous big plays during the series to keep the Colts drive alive.
With 6:45 remaining, and the Colts at the Giants one yard line, Unitas took the snap and handed the ball to Ameche.
Ameche crashed over the goal line for the 23-17 victory.
The game was immediately hailed as “The Greatest Game ever Played” and Donovan (who made a crucial tackle in the game to help set up a Colts scoring drive) and company parlayed their feat into a night of wild celebration.
Repeat in 1959
With mostly the same cast of characters returning in 1959, the Colts nevertheless began the season 1-1.
The team reeled off three straight wins after losing to Chicago in Week 2.
Then, they proceeded to lose to Cleveland and Washington to sit at 4-3 halfway through the year.
Sensing destiny slipping away, Baltimore righted the ship with five wins to finish the season.
Heaven Birthday, Art Donovan. Call him 'Bulldog', call him 'Fatso', call him what you will.
But don't be fooled by his renowned, Bronx-accented storytelling; Art was a top-flight defensive tackle for the '50s Colts in Baltimore…PFHOF Class of '68. A true monster in the middle. pic.twitter.com/iqZbdJvVNB
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) June 5, 2019
The Colts ended 1959 at 9-3 and, once again, faced the Giants in the NFL Championship game.
This time, it looked like New York would get revenge from the previous year as the third quarter ended with the Giants leading 9-7.
However, in the final quarter, two Unitas touchdown passes, an interception return for a score by Johnny Sample, and a 25 yard field goal by Myhra capped a 24 point Baltimore explosion.
The Colts repeated as champs after prevailing 31-16.
1960 & 1961
In 1960, the back-to-back world champion Colts started 6-2 before losing their last four games to finish 6-6.
For the fourth year in a row, Donovan started every game.
He was selected as a Second-team All-Pro after the season.
The following year, the Colts improved to 8-6.
Donovan again started every game as the length of the NFL season went from 12 to 14 games beginning in 1961.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) August 30, 2018
Although he was a valued contributor to the Baltimore defense, the Colts cut Donovan a couple weeks into training camp in 1962.
After 12 years in the NFL, Donovan decided to hang up his cleats and retire.
During his career, Donovan started every game he played except four.
He was a five-time Pro Bowler, four-time First-team All-Pro, two-time NFL Champion, two-time Second-team All-Pro (1958 and 1960), and a member of the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.
He has since been placed in the Baltimore Ravens Ring of Honor and had his number 70 retired by the Indianapolis Colts.
In 1968, Donovan was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His Hall quote is pure Donovan.
“We didn’t make much money, but we had a lot of fun…nothing but fun. Whoever thought that kids who enjoyed the game on all those sandlots would get to play the game on the pro level? That’s pretty special.”
Funny Man in Retirement
After retiring, Donovan continued to keep people in stitches.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) January 18, 2020
He was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the Late Show with David Letterman where he would spin yarns about his days in football and the military.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) June 5, 2020
During each public appearance, Donovan would downplay his success on the gridiron.
However, more than one former teammate and opponent said that Donovan was just being modest.
“One man alone could not knock Artie off his feet,” said former Colts center Buzz Nutter.
In 1987, Donovan published a book titled “Fatso: Football When Men Were Really Men.”
“Fatso” was the nickname Donovan gave himself to describe his underwhelming physique.
After his book came out, he went on the Letterman show again.
The long time, late night television personality asked Donovan if he would recommend people read his book.
“I don’t know, I guess so,” Donovan deadpanned.
Donovan also had various guest appearances on Nickelodeon shows as well as a co-host of WWF wrestling events.
He owned liquor stores as well as The Valley Country Club in Baltimore.
In the 1990s, Donovan was a co-host of the television program Braase, Donovan, Davis, and Fans on WJZ-TV.
“Fatso” also lent his voice and stories to radio, which could be an event all its own.
“He drank Schlitz beer and burped on the airwaves,” said Baltimore Sun writer Mike Preston.
In 2004, Donovan was inducted into another hall, this time the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in Quantico, Virginia.
When asked about the event, Donovan said, “I hope they serve Schlitz.”
During the enshrinement, Donovan was honored for his service in WWII and the bravery he showed on the field of battle.
“Artie Donovan is a true hero with an exemplary record,” said Gary Bloomfield, author of Duty, Honor, Victory, a history of athletes who served in World War II. “He was in some of the most brutal battles of the war. You can put him right up there with anyone.”
Unfortunately, even the merriest of men and brightest of personalities can’t last forever.
Donovan passed away at the age of 89 on August 4, 2013.
Though he is gone, Donovan is still remembered with fondness along with his unending quips and modesty.
“Take me for what I am,” Donovan once said. “I’m a nobody, like you or anyone else. I was lucky enough to play football, and everyone liked me. That’s it.”