Roasting Donovan is a bellyful of fun

John Steadman

November 20, 1992|By John Steadman

That walking-around good humor man was in his element. A sports banquet, with friends, laughter and tales of the past -- most of them about the guest of honor, Arthur Donovan, as distinctive and unforgettable an individual as God ever blessed with breath.

He was to be the brunt of the jokes, the "heavy," the target of the jocular abuse. The Sports Boosters of Maryland honored him with a roast that turned into more of a toast.

Former teammates, such as Dick Szymanski, Ordell Braase and George Young, were there to playfully put the harpoon in this bundle of fun who came to Baltimore to play football 42 years ago and won the hearts of its citizens.

John Mackey, who came after Donovan to the Colts, and Jim Ringo, who played against Donovan as a Green Bay Packer, paid their professional respects during an evening of whimsical recollections. Donovan was to look at Ringo and say, "You held me on so many plays you still got my jersey number, 70, in your hands."

And Young remembered a night in 1955 when he went on a double-date to a Knights of Columbus dance in Highlandtown with Donovan and he was so smitten with the girl he was with that nothing would do until he married her. It was a classic case of love at first sight.

For Szymanski and Braase, the chance to give Donovan a going-over was almost routine. They've made a career of what has been a long and joyful experience. "When I came in the banquet hall tonight," said Szymanski, "I saw Arthur and told him I had a Polish joke to tell him. Artie told me he was Irish. And then I explained, 'I know. That's why I'll tell it slow.' "

Szymanski described his friend as "looking like a worn-out water bed."

"And by the time he was 5 years old he had eaten so much he had worn out two sets of teeth. He went to school for two terms, Roosevelt and Truman. And in the third grade, his desk was moved closer to the wall so he could plug in his electric shaver.

"When he was in the Marines, he went in a private and came out a private. That's what I call progress. At birth, he was 18 pounds. That's a fact. And he was so big that it took him two days to be born, June 5 and June 6 of 1924."

Then Szymanski reminded the audience that any time you travel with Donovan, it's a memorable event. He draws a following akin to the Pied Piper.

For the only serious moment of his remarks, the former Colts center/linebacker added, "What a wonderful gift -- to be able to make people laugh."

Braase talked in a similar vein and kidded Donovan about his Marine Corps service and the fact he got a purple heart. "But I heard he got shot in the butt swimming back to the boat," he quipped. The former Colts defensive end remarked what a sad day it was in Art's life when he retired from football.

"I know he enjoyed playing, but I think what he missed more than anything was drinking beer with the boys when the practices and games were over," Braase said.

Donovan agreed. After referring to his pal, Szymanski, as a "flannel-mouth Polack," he admitted, "When they told me to retire, it was one of the worst days of my life. That night when I put my head on the pillow I cried."

Yes, that's how much football meant to Donovan, who started playing for the Colts in 1950 for $4,500 and was three days late for camp. The coaches weren't at all concerned because they had such little belief in his ability they didn't care if he reported or not. But he played his way into the Hall of Fame.

He was a tackle of awesome strength, able to split double-team blockers as if they were papier-mache.

Artie recalled how he felt fortunate growing up in the Bronx, where the neighborhood had a diverse distribution of ethnic backgrounds. "We got along beautifully. We used to steal bagels and eat them when we drank beer until 5 a.m. After the title game in 1958, I was proud to be on the winning Colts team, beating the Giants in New York.

"I felt like a big shot. I was standing outside Mr. Goldberg's candy store, where I had been going since I was 6 years old. He came out, saw me and said, 'You big bum, are you out of work again?' So much for feeling important."

Donovan played with two teams that went bankrupt, the Colts of 1950, the Dallas Texans of 1952 and, in between, the New York Yanks, who transferred to Dallas. It was a rather uncertain beginning but he became a tremendous defensive lineman, earning All-Pro distinction and ultimately becoming the first Colt elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There was the second half of a Pro Bowl when Paul Brown, coaching the eastern all-stars, wouldn't let his quarterback call a play to Donovan's side of the line. He said it was a waste of time. On another occasion, Clyde "Bulldog" Turner came back to the huddle of the Chicago Bears, looked at guard Dick Barwegen and moaned, "I have finally met my master." He was referring to Donovan.

So it was a night of remembering the kind of football ability he had but also touching off some revelry. Donovan was the focus, the dartboard of it all, which is a role he doesn't mind playing.

Underneath all the bluster and encouragement from the crowd is a man of sensitivity, a born entertainer. He is a Johnny Appleseed who goes about the land not taking himself too seriously, spreading good will and telling a thousand and one stories.

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