Artie Donovan, good humor man of Colts, turns 70

June 06, 1994|By John Steadman

Family and friends turned out to get sentimental over Arthur Donovan, a walking-around wonder of the world, on his 70th birthday. It was a time for what he does best -- reminiscing -- only others were doing it. There were cheers and, yes, even a tear or two.

It was a party at the Valley Country Club (where else, since he owns the place?) put on with affection and respect for a perpetual good humor man who brings the priceless quality of laughter to followers who surround him as if he's a modern Pied Piper.

Donovan finally caught up to number 70, the Baltimore Colts jersey he wore with Hall of Fame distinction. His notorious dietary and drinking habits are unconventional. He may order four double cheeseburgers and a six-pack of beer for a before-bed snack, or even more. The nutritionists aren't happy but have reluctantly come to realize there are exceptions to every rule.

Surrounded by family and friends, including ex-teammates, two of his doctors, a dentist and four priests, Donovan felt so comfortable on his birthday that he became the contented listener. Donovan, premier entertainer, never spoke to the gathering, but his wife, children and others in the ballroom talked about him with profound admiration, citing his consideration and sacrifices as a father and husband.

He mentioned to a guest that 50 years ago to the day, when he turned 20, he was in World War II combat as a Marine for the first time.

"I was on the San Jacinto, what was called a small carrier, near Guam, and shooting a 40-millimeter gun at the Japanese planes that tried to blow us out of the water," he said. "I was so scared I wet my pants."

Two Colts, Jim Mutscheller and Alex Sandusky, thanked him for what he meant to them personally and, on a broader scale, to the city and state. Dr. Edmond McDonnell, the retired surgeon who cared for the injuries of Baltimore sports teams, said, "We've all been blessed to have known such a remarkable individual. God created only one of him."

Elmer Wingate, another former Colt, added, "A once-in-a-lifetime kind of individual. He does what he wants and says what he wants in his own inimitable way."

Larry Beck, known as the "Trophy King" of Baltimore, commented, "A genuine, realistic guy. No phony." Joe Wyatt, a businessman, said, "He's so special he belongs in a hall of fame for humanity." And Fred Kail, a sculptor, remarked, "He's a link to an era I'm afraid the world may not see again."

Donovan came to play for the Colts in 1950 after four years at Boston College, on a team that sent such outstanding players as Ernie Stautner, John Kissel, Art Spinney, Ed "Butch" Songin and Eddie King to the National Football League. "I got paid $4,500 for the season," he remembers. "Sisto Averno just reminded me we also played seven exhibitions and two or three intra-squad games. That was a lot of tough work for so little pay but I loved it.

"There was a brewery going out of business called Weisner's. We bought cases for 50 cents and stacked them in the hallway of where we stayed, the old St. James Hotel in downtown Baltimore. We had so many beer cases in the place they reached to the ceiling."

But Donovan, with a legendary capacity for being able to consume beer, only liked it out of cans. If it was in bottles, he wasn't interested. His tastes are discerning. But he has never been inebriated and has a tolerance for beer that can be explained by the fact he is 270 pounds. At birth he weighed in at 17 pounds, which is tackle size for a baby.

He was attracted to football while growing up in the Bronx and nearby was the campus of Fordham University and its outstanding teams of the mid- and late-1930s. Athletics come to him quite naturally. His grandfather, Mike Donovan, was the middleweight champion of the world and served as President Theodore Roosevelt's private boxing instructor. His own father, Arthur Sr., was a prominent referee.

All three of the Donovans are in their respective halls of fame, which says much for the kind of genes they shared.

Donovan's humor is never hurtful and he enjoys the give and take of repartee.

"I made an appearance on the Eastern Shore at an auto repair shop," he was saying "and, honest to God, a woman asked me to have my picture taken with a dog. Guess what the dog's name was? It was 'Hemorrhoid.' That made the trip worthwhile. If you can't laugh at that, then you just can't laugh."

When Donovan was about to retire, after 12 NFL years, he called to notify a sportswriter. He had to fight for control of his emotions. Yes, that's how much the game meant to him. It wasn't just a job, a chance to make money.

Art Donovan, bottom line, has been much more than a football player with Hall of Fame ability. He has a way of making you smile and laugh. Crowds are drawn to him with a magnetism that continues to endure because humor, you see, is so good for the soul.

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