Art Donovan was in Guam with that last wave of Marines when the U.S. unleashed its nuclear might on Japan. His first thought when he heard the news: "Was this trip really necessary?"� Coming home, he did not exactly get a hero's welcome, to the extent that the bartenders in California, his first friendly land-ho after 23 months of bobbing around the Pacific, would not serve him. It had been a long trip but not so long that he was yet old enough to drink. We won the war for this? Matters improved marginally by the time he reached his family's Bronx kitchen. "My mother was cooking a ham." But even when he got into Manhattan, with 20 months' pay in his pockets, a guy still had a hard time slaking his thirst. The fellow at the Roosevelt Hotel told Donovan he'd need a shirt and tie if he was going to drink there (he wasn't).
Donovan, who would in time acquire the nickname Fatso, even then marked his comings and goings by food and drink. All you need to know is that all Art Donovan got out of World War II was a ham. And he didn't really know where his next one was coming from.
So he enrolled at Boston College and, after a rather indifferent academic career, was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, which was not exactly a bonanza. In 1950 the NFL was hardly an experimental enterprise, but it wasn't a surefire line of work either. There were some good, famous teams—the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cleveland Browns. But there were also a lot of teams that kept getting sold back to the league (the Colts, the New York Yanks, the Dallas Texans), and Donovan played for each of them. Who today would believe that in 1952 little more than 13,000 customers would pay to watch the Dallas Texans in the Cotton Bowl? That the team would be sold back to the league midseason and play out the rest of its schedule as a road team based in Hershey, Pa.? (It won its Thanksgiving Day game against the Bears—its only victory that season—before 3,000 fans in Akron.)
Some players were enjoying a high profile, but Donovan was not one of them. The league, notwithstanding a few storied franchises, was yet in its infancy. Some games were broadcast on TV (the Los Angeles Rams had a local contract), most not. The DuMont Network picked up the NFL's 1951 title game for $75,000, but national coverage was otherwise scant. So who was going to get famous outside of Elroy Hirsch and Norm Van Brocklin? Or rich, for that matter? Winning shares for the 1951 champion Rams set a record, $2,108 for each player.
The game was a lot of fun, no question, and Donovan was making some great, memorable friends. Gino Marchetti, who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, was one. Another was a completely unhinged player named George Ratterman, who'd marvel at the polished expanses of hotel lobby floors and then belly flop onto them, sailing along on the marble, until he crashed into a wall. "[He was] a quarterback too," Donovan recalls.
But was professional football a career? Following his first season, after which the Colts folded and the players were dispersed in a draft ( Donovan ended up with the equally hapless Yanks), he went home and applied to Columbia University's Teachers College. He'd be a teacher! Anything! He got a kind note back from the school suggesting his grades at Boston College were not really that promising. "P.S.," it continued. "If I were you, I'd stick with the NFL."
He did, pending further brainstorms. After his third season, when his team again folded—his contract was picked up by Carroll Rosenbloom, who'd been awarded the holdings of the former Texans franchise—he decided he'd try police work. Why not? He had uncles who were inspectors and detectives. He took the NYPD exam. He'd be a flatfoot! Anything!
But that year the Colts caught fire, a little, on the field and in the stands. Donovan was benefiting from the attention of his coaches and was becoming a pretty good defensive tackle, his weight problems aside. (The team offered him a bonus every season he kept his weight under 278 pounds.) Donovan knew he had a job he liked, even if it didn't pay all his bills. But that was O.K.—he had finally found a way to keep both children and criminals safe, landing himself a job with a liquor distributor.
"I sold whiskey before practice, after practice and off-season," Donovan says. "The Colts were going good, everybody knew who I was, and it was easy to get my stuff into stores."
Not that everyone from his Bronx neighborhood saw Donovan as a big success. Back in New York, during off-seasons, he'd hang out in front of Mr. Goldberg's candy store. "Artie," Goldberg wondered one day, "are you out of work again?"