The first time I met Artie Donovan, I got all of it — a big serving of his affable nature, his way of taking genuine interest in a complete stranger, a dose of his amazing memory and his way of connecting life experiences with the food and drink that accompanied them.
This was 25 years ago. I was supposed to interview Hall of Famer Donovan, but he started off with questions for me instead. He recognized my New England accent. "Where are you from?" he asked.
When I told him my native state was Massachusetts, he wanted to know what town. When I said it was a dot on the map he probably never heard of, he insisted on hearing the name. When I said, "East Bridgewater," Donovan laughed, "Ha! No kidding! Don Colo was from there."
Don Colo was supposedly the biggest lad to ever come out of East Bridgewater High School, way before my time there. He played college football at Brown. He eventually became a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, one of the few NFL players to come out of the Ivy League.
"Oh sure," Donovan said, "we played together."
Both Donovan, who attended Boston College, and Colo were drafted as defensive tackles by the Baltimore Colts in the third round of the 1950 draft. But that team folded at season's end. So did the next two clubs for which they played — the New York Yanks and Dallas Texans. While Donovan stayed with the Colts, Colo went off to Cleveland in a big trade. Both men wore No. 70 for their respective teams.
"I went to East Bridgewater," Donovan recalled 35 years later, in Baltimore. "I went to Colo's house, and his mother cooked us a big meal." I think he said it was spaghetti and meatballs.
It was always like this with Art Donovan — a jolly storyteller, a Falstaff of football with a vivid memory and a big, happy-to-be-here, woo-hoo! kind of laugh.
His teammates called him Fatso. He wrote a book with that title (subtitled, "Football When Men Were Really Men") in 1987, and that's when Donovan was discovered as a source of entertainment — a "character" — for late-night television. Appearances with David Letterman made him a genuine national celebrity for a time.
But he never left his adopted town and he always reminded people about the down-to-earth nature of the men who once played for the old Baltimore Colts. For big Artie Donovan, "living large" did not mean living life extravagantly. It meant living life energetically and happily and without regret, being thankful for what you have and grateful for those who made it possible.
Fans of two generations (the Colts generation and the Letterman generation) would meet Donovan — maybe in the liquor store he once owned, or at his swim-and-tennis club — and he could make them feel like the most important people in the room. Around here, he was a legend who didn't act like one.
About 10 years ago, I visited Donovan a few times, just to catch up and see how he was doing after taking a spill on the stairs in his house. He had had surgery to repair a busted hip at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 79 at the time and in a wheelchair. (One of his many friends set up a tailgate party in the hospital parking lot so Donovan, and those tending to him at GBMC, could have the patient's favorite lunch, grilled hot dogs.)
In the process of telling about his broken hip, Donovan told other stories of injuries — none of which had anything to do with football.
He lost his right knee cap, for instance, after taking a spill in the late 1970s while doing maintenance at his Valley Country Club: "I had my right knee cap taken out after I fell in the pool. I fell 23 feet and no water in the pool. Broke everything — my ribs, my knee."
He also sustained injuries while on safari in Africa, though he couldn't remember exactly where this happened: "I dunno. Zambeezie. Zambini. Zambia? We were taking pictures of the animals. I fell about 16 feet into this ravine. I couldn't walk. They got me out of there on a table, and a plane came in the morning, and they evacuated me out of there. I went to see my orthopedic. I had 24 crushed ribs."
"Geez, Art," I told him, "it would be easier to just watch Animal Planet."
"I love that show," he said.
"And all this happened to you after football?"
"Football was easy," he said. "I got these therapists. I did more exercising since I broke my hip than I did 13 years in pro football."
Artie Donovan, once a behemoth, seemed smaller that day, in the wheelchair, having shrunk a bit with age. But he smiled, and he remembered that my hometown was also Don Colo's. Donovan still had that big, happy-to-be-here, woo-hoo! kind of laugh — the sound of the jolly old football player and a life lived large. Rest in peace.