Art Donovan played from 1950 to 1961 as a defensive tackle. Along with Johnny Unitas he was one of the Baltimore Colts’ “Magnificent Seven.” His post-playing careers included entrepreneur, radio commentator, and frequent guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. Art Donovan passed away last Sunday at the age of 89. Peter Richmond remembered him in a column for Sports On Earth. He joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Donovan’s appeal certainly endeared him to late-night TV audiences and hosts and to the many readers of his book Fatso. What was the key to his charm?
PR: He was natural. From the second you met him, you sensed that, unlike so many athletes now, there was no facade. The first time I did meet him, in the basement kitchen of his country club – even though it wasn’t really a country club – he was funny but not in a self-conscious way. It was just him. I never really understood why the NFL and the networks didn’t find a way to lasso Artie’s sense of humor as a real selling point for a league that could use one now.
BL: You mention his country club, and I could hear the quotation marks in your voice. It was called the Valley Country Club in Baltimore. Why wasn’t it a country club?PR: Well, it was called a country club, but it was basically designed to just be a place to have events, functions, parties at a nice sports bar. It was called the Valley Country Club, but you didn’t have to join. So when I met Artie in ’85 I think in the basement that’s where he wanted to meet me. He didn’t want to meet me in the bar. He didn’t want to meet me at the door of his inn. I think I walked in, and he said, “Come on down,” and I remember going down to the basement. My kind of guy.
BL: Now we’ve talked about everything but football, but Donovan, he’s a Hall of Famer. Although he rarely did calisthenics. How did he get to be so good?
PR: He had very good instincts. Artie was a very smart guy despite talking about how when he tried to apply to Columbia to be a teacher they said, “Oh, Mr. Donovan, we think you should continue to play football.” He was a very smart guy. He really was an athlete in a giant, artillery-shell-shaped body, and he got big, he got big. But boy he had a good run for a guy that big.
BL: Do you have a favorite Art Donovan story?
PR: Absolutely. He grew up in the Bronx, about 20 blocks north of the Grand Concourse Hotel. Now the Grand Concourse Hotel was, in fact, a grand hotel. So flash backward, Artie’s like a 12-year-old kid and routinely with friends goes down to the Grand Concourse, and during the dance numbers, Artie and his pals would run in and rip off pitchers of beer and then run back out into the street. And the reason they could get away with it was because the maître d’ was from Artie’s neighborhood. Flash forward now, I guess, 18 years, and Artie’s telling me, “[me] Artie Donovan, I’m staying in the Grand Concourse,” because the Colts, the night before the game that changed the history of professional football – that ’58 championship game against the Giants – the Colts stayed in the Grand Concourse Hotel, and Artie Donovan was a guest. And the next morning they got up, walked down the hill, beat the Giants, and changed the game forever.