Baltimoreans who have grown up thinking of the Ravens as Baltimore's football team don't know Art Donovan as a football player, but as the lovable wisecrackin' uncle who spun yarns about his days in football. We never saw him play a down, save for archival footage appearing from time to time on ESPN Classic, but his convivial spirit made him a warm, approachable link to a more blue-collar era of professional football and a time and place in Baltimore we never knew.
Donovan died Aug. 4 of a respiratory ailment at Stella Maris Hospice. He was 89 years old.
The two most visible Baltimore Colts for those of us who grew up knowing the Colts were an Indianapolis team that rightfully should have been ours were quarterback Johnny Unitas and Donovan, a former defensive tackle. If Unitas was the revered, stoic field general, Donovan was something of a class clown, a beloved one. His gift of gab landed him in the guest seats of late-night talk shows, sharing funny stories with Johnny Carson and David Letterman about his old playing days, trying to get through airport security with various meats, and anything else that might have come to his mind.
Recounting his first television appearance for Sports Illustrated in 1986, Donovan said: "I was telling stories, and people were laughing, and everything was great. When we cut to a commercial, the guy says, 'Can you do another eight minutes?' I said, 'Hell, I can do eight months.'"
Let's be clear, though: On the field, during his 12-year career, much of it spent with the Colts, he was an absolute force, using brute strength and agility to put pressure on passers and shut down the run game. Donovan made five trips to the Pro Bowl and played a key part in the Colts' back-to-back NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959.
Hall of Fame offensive lineman Stan Jones told The Sun: "He was always the hardest tackle for me to block," adding that Donovan was "the smartest tackle I ever faced. He was quick, like a matador. He'd move one way and go the other."
After retiring from the Colts following the 1961 season, Donovan was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's sixth class in 1968.
In his later years, Donovan owned liquor stores around town as well as the Valley Country Club, a grand mansion in Baltimore County that serves as a wedding venue. Tucked into the side of the banquet hall is a small bar decorated with mementos from Donovan's life and career. It's a great spot for knocking back beers and swapping stories, which is probably just how he wanted it.