Fans who tune in to Late Night With David Letterman get a special treat from time to time, when Art Donovan, a 60-year-old, 340-pound man with a severe crew cut, tells stories about his life in the National Football League. Those who remember Donovan's career (1950-61), most of it as a defensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts, might expect the stories to be long on glory. After all, he played on two championship teams, was named All-Pro four times, played in five Pro Bowls and was elected to the Hall of Fame only six years after his retirement. But they would be wrong. Instead, Donovan tells tales of mayhem and mischief both on and off the field. And he is funny.
We had a quarterback named George Shaw. He wasn't a very big guy, but he was a talented fella, a lot like Francis Tarkenton. Well, we were playing the Bears in '55, and Dick Szymanski was the center. It was in the second quarter, and Shaw goes back to throw a pass, and just as he's about to throw, a lineman breaks through and hits him. At the same time, a linebacker, George Connor, comes blitzing in with a 20-yard head start, and he hits George a shot. Jeez, he leveled him. He put a shoulder right in his face, busted the face mask. They pulled George off the held. His nose was bleeding, he didn't know where he was. So he's on the bench, and he says to Szymanski, "Hey, Szyzzie, how do my teeth look?" And Szyzzie says, "I don't know, George, they aren't there."
Donovan had been a popular banquet speaker in Baltimore for years. In 1981 Steve Sabol of NFL Films caught his act and was fascinated. "We were doing a show on the NFL in the '50s," says Sabol, "and several people told me that Art Donovan was the man to see. Well, we went down to his country club in Baltimore, and he was great. When many people talk, it's like watching a train of boxcars go by. But Artie tells stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. We shot 12 rolls of film that day, more than we've shot with anybody. There was enough material for us to use in 10 programs."
As it happened, Late Night producer Barry Sand saw one of those shows. "Art was outrageous, funny and definitely not normal," he says. "It seemed to me that if he could be as funny in a talk show setting, he'd make a wonderful guest." Did Sand realize what a great football player Donovan had been? "No, I had no idea," he says. "Frankly, when I saw the crew cut I wondered if he was still alive."
February 10, 1986
"In my first appearance," Donovan says, "I was telling stories, and people were laughing, and everything was great. When we cut to a commercial, the guy says, 'Can you do another eight minutes?' I said, 'Hell, I can do eight months.' "
Sure, football's a rough game. When I was with Dallas, a guy jumped up and down on my leg until he broke it. It hurt like hell. I sat out two games, but then they didn't have anybody else so they taped me up and put me in. I told them I couldn't run. They said, "That's O.K., if they run the play at you, just fall down and try to get in the way."
Bill Pellington, the Colts' middle linebacker, was a rough player. The Detroit Lions were out to get him, and a Lion fullback named Tracy broke Pellington's arm in the first game of the '57 season, forcing him out for the year. The next year, they let Pellington put a steel cast on his arm, wrapped in a quarter inch of foam rubber. Well, that's as good as nothing. He was going around, swinging that arm, hitting people. Billy Howton, the wide receiver for the Packers, went up to the ref and said, "Hell, why don't you give him a gun and let him do a clean job on us?"
Donovan's storytelling abilities may make people forget just how good a player he was. Seeing little snippets of film doesn't help. In the highlight film of the famous 1958 championship game, for example, the Giants' big plays were run away from Donovan's side, leaving the camera to record what appears to be a marshmallow wearing No. 70, shirt out, socks down, trotting after the play.
George Young, currently the general manager of the Giants, saw most of Donovan's professional career, first as a fellow tackle on the Dallas Texans and then as a fan of the Colts and close friend (Young was an usher at Donovan's wedding). "Donovan wasn't a very good player when he came into the league," Young says. "He was a 25-year-old rookie who hadn't been taught anything. It wasn't until Weeb Ewbank became head coach in 1954 that Arthur developed."
"I was lucky," says Donovan. "If I had gone to any other team in the league when I broke in, in 1950, I wouldn't have made it. But the Colts were the lousiest team in football, so I made the squad. But when Weeb came, he taught us that by concentrating on the movements of the three linemen in front of you, you can tell where the ball is going."
Donovan prospered under that system. "He had great powers of concentration," says Young. "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 played low in what was then a high league, and he stuffed the trap all the time. If he got trapped once in five games, that was a lot."
Young describes Donovan as an underrated pass rusher. "He was strong and agile, a good athlete for a fat guy. He was able to get that first step. For 10 yards he had good quickness. After that, he had calendar speed. Arthur wasn't an impact player, but he seldom made a mistake. I remember him as a player who played perfect games. His consistency was his greatness."
There were a lot of good offensive linemen in the league. I'd be very remiss if I pointed to one guy and said he was the toughest. But one who really had my number was Bruno Banducci, the right guard of the 49ers. About 6'1", about 255, low center of gravity, the kind you have trouble with. I thought the guy was always holding, he was blocking me so well. Then I saw the movies, and he was just beating me. He played next to an All-America, a guy named Al Carapella, and that guy was just out-and-out holding me. I said, "Hey! Don't hold me!" Well, the next time he held me, I hit him in the mouth, and I knocked two teeth out. I split my knuckle! He was hollering at me, and Banducci said to me, "What did you do that for?" I said, "He was holding me!" Banducci turns to the guy and says, "Serves you right. You don't have to hold Donovan."
We played the Giants in an exhibition game in Louisville. It was a brand-new stadium, and the first thing they had in there was a circus. Every time you put your hand down, you put it in a pile of elephant manure. That was O.K. During the game, after the offense set and the linemen couldn't move, we'd throw globs of it at them.
Donovan was born in the Bronx. His grandfather, Mike O'Donovan, was a world middleweight boxing champion—and a frequent sparring partner of Theodore Roosevelt. His father, Arthur Donovan, a famous boxing referee, presided at 22 championship bouts, including 19 of Joe Louis's. He was also the boxing instructor at the New York Athletic Club for 55 years. "My father was a big man in New York," says Donovan. "He taught boxing to every millionaire in town. I was always known as Young Arthur or Little Arthur." Donovan doesn't make any more of it than that, but after becoming a hero in Baltimore he stayed there, growing in wisdom, age, grace...and weight.
"I don't eat vegetables," he says, explaining how he keeps his figure. "I only eat food like cheeseburgers, Spam, hot dogs and pizza. And I drink a little beer. People tell me if I don't eat vegetables, I'm going to get scurvy. Well, what the hell. But I was never overweight as a player. There was a clause in my contract that said I had to weigh in at 270 every Friday morning. I always made it. I'd have dinner on Monday, and then I wouldn't eat until Friday. I'm not saying I didn't drink a little beer, but I wouldn't eat. By Saturday I'd weigh 280." Donovan says that Ordell Braase, a former teammate, recently cracked that if Richard Perry is called the Refrigerator, Donovan should have been called the Walk-in Freezer.
We were at training camp at Western Maryland College, and some of us older guys started wondering who was the biggest eater on the team. Well, three guys thought it was Gino Marchetti, and three of us thought it was Don Joyce, the other defensive end. So we put up $100 apiece, and after the coaches left, the eight of us went over to the cafeteria to have this contest. So the guy there puts out this beautiful meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and peas. Well, the bet was how many pieces of chicken these guys could eat. Gino just ate the chicken, but Joyce started eating the whole meal. I said, "For God's sake, don't worry about the mashed potatoes, just eat the damn chicken!" So he stopped, after two helpings. Well, Marchetti ate 26 pieces of chicken. Joyce hit 25, and we said, "Great, two more and we win." But Joyce said, "Hold on, I'm still hungry." He ended up eating 38 pieces of chicken. But the thing is, we hadn't let him drink anything until he beat Gino, on account of we didn't want his stomach to fill up. So when Joyce had his 27th piece of chicken, he said, "Man, I gotta wash this down." There was a big pitcher of iced tea in front of him, so we said, "Here, have it." With that, he takes four pieces of saccharin out of his pocket and puts them in the tea. He says, "I'm watching my weight."
Donovan clearly relishes his current notoriety and enjoys trucking around the country, enlivening sports gatherings wherever he goes. "He likes people," says Young, "and it shows. Plus, he knows how to laugh at himself." People also like his honesty. "You hear announcers saying everybody's a great football player, and everybody's the most perfect guy in the world. They're not. Some guys are lucky to be playing. And we had guys on our team who were trying to run their wives over in the driveway. Cut the crap."
We were playing an exhibition game against Green Bay in Milwaukee, and a bunch of us were drinking in this bar. Most of us left, but Don Shula stayed there with Carl Taseff, a defensive back. We were back at the hotel for a little while, and the cops showed up. Uh-oh. They said, "We know one of you Colts stole a taxicab." What happened is that Shula and Taseff honked the horn, but nobody showed up. So Shula put Taseff, who was loaded, in the back of the cab, and put the cabbie's hat on, and drove back to the hotel. And you know, they never would have got caught, except Taseff was slow getting out of the cab. He wanted to pay Shula the fare.
Donovan hopes that the NFL will return to Baltimore. "Robert Irsay ruined my Sundays," he says. "I tell people Baltimore is lucky to be rid of the Colts, they're so lousy, but I don't mean it." Temporarily, at least, Baltimore's football fans have only stories to carry them. They're lucky to have a Hall of Fame storyteller to listen to.
Jamie Malanowski is a free-lance writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in "Vanity Fair" and "The Atlantic."