The NFL lost a truly memorable figure Sunday night with the passing of Art Donovan.
Donovan’s franchise roots date back to 1950, his rookie year. That Colts team folded and he became a member of the New York Yanks in 1951 and the Dallas Texans in 1952 before that franchise moved to Baltimore and the Colts were reestablished in the league.
Donovan and the Colts had a permanent home, and he launched a career that led him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968 (his second year of eligibility, the franchise’s first inclusion and the Hall’s sixth class of inductees ever).
Donovan played from 1953-61 and was a stout presence on a Colts defense that helped the franchise win consecutive world championships in 1958 and 1959.
The native New Yorker was a fighter at his position. Loved by teammates and respected by opponents, Donovan stands as the only Colts player to wear jersey number 70 – it was retired after he retired.
Donovan went on to earn wide post-career celebrity. He authored a book, ‘Fatso,’ that entertained readers and helped reveal even further one of the greatest personalities in any sport.
Donovan popped up frequently on late-night talkshows or commercials years after his career ended. Those were vehicles that cemented him in the minds of many who never saw him play.
In my 29 years with the franchise, the only Colts Hall of Famer I have not met is Ted Hendricks.
Meeting all of the others provided wonderful memories, whether it was dining with them or visiting them at post-career business interests.
I met Donovan in 1998, when the Colts returned to Baltimore for the first time. I called him to introduce myself and to see if he had some time to visit.
Donovan was to do a segment at a local TV station that Friday night before the game. When I asked him about meeting afterwards, he asked, “Why would I want to?”
Having known him only through the commercial persona, I just wanted to meet the man. All I could come up with was, “Just give me five minutes. I’ll come to the station. If it’s not good for you after five minutes, we’re done.”
After quick introductions, he invited me to sit in the cab of his truck so we could talk. We stayed there for an hour and a half. It was non-stop laughs.
During the chat he asked, “Kelley, are you right-handed or left-handed?” Not knowing what he meant by that, I went with the truth and told him I am a leftie. He responded, “Protestant?”
A couple of months after that, I was around Art for the last time, at the Super Bowl featuring Denver and Atlanta. The NFL had invited former Colts and Giants from the 1958 Championship game to conduct the coin toss.
I had chaperone duty for the group that included, among others, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Tom Landry and Don Maynard.
Our escort path to the field was very long, and Art labored all the way. Once on the field, we arranged a picture for the entire group, then one for the Colts and Giants individually. At the end, I asked for one with just the Colts, and I still have it in my office.
As the contingent waited for the coin toss, KISS was performing. The fire-enhanced performance of “Rock and Roll All Nite” was entertaining to the stadium crowd.
I glanced at Art and saw a look of chagrin. I leaned over and asked, “Is this what the NFL was in your era?” He only shook his head. I couldn’t understand exactly what he muttered, but it wasn’t song lyrics, nor did he stick out his tongue.
On the way back to the suite, I stayed with Art as the rest of the group moved quicker. He was on a cane, and it didn’t matter to me how much of the game I missed. I just wanted to help him at his own pace.
Through the years afterward, I never had much chance to speak with Art again. I tried for a Q&A a little more than a year ago, and his daughter told me he was a little frail.
I understood, but it would have been fun. He did see the questions involved and liked them, but we just couldn’t put it together.
Art passed away at age 88 Sunday in a Baltimore hospice facility just moments before kickoff of the Hall of Fame game.
A new season is underway without one of its Hall of Famers.
Like many, Donovan helped grow the game. He performed military service, even fighting on Iwo Jima.
It was a life well lived on many accounts.
Art, Rest in Peace.
Tags: Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, indianapolis colts, Lenny Moore, NFL, Raymond Berry
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