We lost Art Donovan last night. The world lost a member of the Colts 1958 and 1959 NFL Championships, an NFL Hall of Fame player, a successful businessman, a character, a favorite of David Letterman’s, and an advocate for retired players.
I lost a mentor and friend.
Art had been retired for 11 years by the time I was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1972. When I reported to training camp that July, I discovered the former Baltimore Colts were still very much a part of the Colts’ family. Unlike some NFL franchises today, the Colts welcomed their retired players to training camp and practice, even hosting them at a bull roast, games and other events with active players.
That’s how I first met Art Donovan.
He was holding court, as he so often did, at the bull roast my rookie year, regaling his teammates and mine with stories of his exploits as an Irish Catholic kid growing up in The Bronx, his service as a U.S. Marine in World War II’s most devastating battles in the Pacific Theater, his escapades in pro football, his tales of running a country club and a liquor store, and his second career as a frequent guest of David Letterman.
“Who is this man?” I wondered.
I soon came to know Arthur J. Donovan and throughout our friendship of 41 years, he surprised me not only with his sharp wit, but also with his kindness, his generosity, his spirit, his commitment, and his enjoyment of life. Art became a mentor to me and to other Colts, entertaining us with his stories, guiding us with his wisdom and holding us accountable. He treated with respect each person he encountered, whether it was a young fan seeking his autograph, a patron at his liquor store or country club, a teammate or friend, or a secretary in the Colts’ front office.
Artie was an active and outspoken member of the NFLPA retired players’ chapter in Baltimore. If he’d had his way, in fact, he’d have marched down to the NFLPA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to confront the union leadership over a number of issues.
And, perhaps most importantly, he fully supported Fourth & Goal and our efforts on behalf of retired players.
Just one example:
Most would be surprised to learn that he shunned the accolades. When we approached him in 2007, proposing that we honor him at an event to raise funds for Fourth & Goal, he balked…until we assured him that the money raised would go to benefit retired players in need. That event, in September 2007, was a memorable evening, not only because it raised more than $100,000 for Fourth & Goal and retired NFL players, but also because of the tributes to him by speakers like the New York Giants’ Frank Gifford and Artie’s Colts’ teammate Raymond Berry, and most notably because of the way Artie himself ended the evening.
After the highlight reel and all of the accolades, Art got up to speak. He proudly acknowledged his sister Joan and her very successful – and apparently very lucrative – career on Wall Street. Then he reminded her that he was her only living relative, bring howls of laughter to Joan Donovan and to the audience. He talked about his parents, his childhood in The Bronx, his time at Boston College, and his experiences as a U.S. Marine in World War II’s brutal battles in the Pacific. And he talked about Dorothy — the love of his life — and the family they raised together. Then he ended the evening with an Irish song.
It was an evening I’ll never forget – and I’d bet that most of the 1,000 other folks in the room that night would say the same thing.
Like many who knew Artie, I have many more stories about this man – and many more examples of his influence – than there is time to tell.
So I’ll end with this:
Tonight, heaven is a little more lively a place. I’m envisioning Art sitting down with a Schlitz – his beer of choice – and entertaining an appreciative audience with his tales.
Here on earth, he’ll live on in our memories…oh, how he will live on!
RIP, my friend.
President, Fourth & Goal
Baltimore Colts, 1972-1981
San Diego Chargers, 1982-1983