By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Potentate of Pigskin (@footballfacts)
Arthur J. “Art” Donovan Jr. was a World War II veteran, Hall of Fame football player and two-time NFL champion who in later life became one of the great ambassadors of the game of pro football.
He passed away Sunday night, on Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend, at age 88.
Donovan is largely remembered today for a larger-than-life personality that projected him into the national cultural spotlight in the 1980s, as he recanted tales of the rough-and-tumble side of 1950s pro football with quick-witted Henny Youngman-style one liners delivered in his patented gruff voice and everyman style.
He became the face of “old time” football in 1987, after publishing the best-selling book “Fatso: Football When Men Were Really Men.” It launched him into heavy rotation on the national talk show circuit.
The colorful, beer-loving, workout-hating, overweight “Fatso” often joked about his own size. He told Johnny Carson that “I was 17 pounds when I was born. My mother couldn’t walk for three weeks.
Donovan’s stories told of professional athletes who lived differently than they do today – more like those hard-living folks who cheered for them in the stands. Donovan said that one time he sacked Detroit Lions Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, whose breath reeked of whiskey.
“I said, Bobby … you must have had a hell of a night last night. He said, ‘I had a few at halftime.’”
Donovan reminded a new generation of fans around the country in the 1980s that football was, at its essence, nothing more than a game played by oversized boys out for an oversized good time. That message resonated in the 1980s, when the corporatization of the NFL, which distanced players from their fans, was in full bloom.
The fact that he spent his formative years in the Marine Corps in World War II also helped Donovan put football into context for a new generation of fans: pro football to was not life and death. Far from it. It is in fact just a game. And the wartime Marine reminded us that games are meant to be fun.
Interestingly, this Hall of Fame defensive tackle began his career suffering on some of the worst defenses in the history of football, before he finally emerged with the upstart Colts of the 1950s.
Here are 15 Cold, Hard Football Facts about the Hall of Famer they call Fatso.
ONE – Donovan was born in the Bronx and went to play football for famed coach Frank Leahy and the dominant Notre Dame football team in 1942.
TWO – His career at Notre Dame was short lived: like many men his age, he interrupted his education to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. He manned an anti-aircraft gun crew aboard the U.S.S. San Jacinto in the Pacific and participated in several key campaigns, including the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Navy pilot and future President George H.W. Bush also served aboard the U.S.S. San Jacinto.
THREE – He returned from the war to finish his education and play football at Boston College.
FOUR – The New York Giants selected Donovan in the 22nd round of the 1947 draft, with the No. 204 overall pick.
FIVE – Donovan began his NFL career as a 26-year-old rookie with the short-lived first edition of the Baltimore Colts in 1950. It might have been the worst team in NFL history, with a 1-11 record. It was certainly the worst defense in football history, surrendering a record 38.5 PPG.
SIX – The Colts folded at the end of that 1950 season. A franchise of the same name reemerged in 1953 under new ownership, with Donovan back on the roster.
SEVEN – Fatso had little more luck in 1951, as the Colts remerged as the equally short-lived New York Yanks. That team also won just one game (1-9-2) and ranked dead last in defense (31.8 PPG). Only 13 teams in NFL history surrendered more points.
EIGHT – In the “you can’t make this up” department: the Yanks became the Dallas Texans in 1952, but fortunes got no better with the move. The franchise lasted just a single season in Dallas, also won just one game (1-11) and also fielded one of the worst defenses in the history of football.
The 1952 Texans surrendered 427 points (35.6 PPG) – 12th among 12 teams and 99 points worse than the 11th-ranked Chicago Bears. It ranks as the fourth worst defense in NFL history, behind the 1950 Colts, 1954 Redskins (36.0 PPG) and 1966 Giants (35.8 PPG)
NINE – Donovan emerged as a Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the new-edition Baltimore Colts of 1953. However, that team also finished dead last in the NFL in scoring defense, surrendering 29.2 PPG.
TEN – He was a Pro Bowl performer for each of the next four seasons, as the Colts defense improved through the years. The NFL-champion 1958 Colts finished No. 2 in scoring defense (16.9 PPG).
ELEVEN – The Colts produced a second consecutive NFL championship in 1959. They finished No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating in both championship seasons.
TWELVE – Donovan was one of 17 Hall of Famers (12 of them players) who participated in the epic 1958 NFL championship game between the Colts and Giants. Baltimore’s 23-17 victory in pro football’s first overtime contest has been dubbed “The Best Game Ever.”
THIRTEEN – Donovan was a liquor salesman in the off-season. He and his family have run Valley Country Club in Maryland since 1955 and he reportedly invested his bonus from the 1958 NFL championship game into improvements in the historic landmark property.
FOURTEEN – Donovan ended his playing career after the 1961 season. The Colts retired his No. 70 jersey before the first game of the 1962 season.
Only seven other Colts have had their numbers retired: Peyton Manning (18), Johnny Unitas (19), Buddy Young (22), Lenny Moore (24), Jim Parker (77), Raymond Berry (82) and Donovan’s defensive linemate Gino Marchetti (89).
FIFTEEN – Donvan was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, the first Colts player to receive footballl's highest honor. He was inducted into the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.