Fans who tune in to Late Night With David Letterman get a special treat from time to time, when Art Donovan, a 60-year-old, 340-pound man with a severe crew cut, tells stories about his life in the National Football League. Those who remember Donovan's career (1950-61), most of it as a defensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts, might expect the stories to be long on glory. After all, he played on two championship teams, was named All-Pro four times, played in five Pro Bowls and was elected to the Hall of Fame only six years after his retirement. But they would be wrong. Instead, Donovan tells tales of mayhem and mischief both on and off the field. And he is funny.
We had a quarterback named George Shaw. He wasn't a very big guy, but he was a talented fella, a lot like Francis Tarkenton. Well, we were playing the Bears in '55, and Dick Szymanski was the center. It was in the second quarter, and Shaw goes back to throw a pass, and just as he's about to throw, a lineman breaks through and hits him. At the same time, a linebacker, George Connor, comes blitzing in with a 20-yard head start, and he hits George a shot. Jeez, he leveled him. He put a shoulder right in his face, busted the face mask. They pulled George off the held. His nose was bleeding, he didn't know where he was. So he's on the bench, and he says to Szymanski, "Hey, Szyzzie, how do my teeth look?" And Szyzzie says, "I don't know, George, they aren't there."
Donovan had been a popular banquet speaker in Baltimore for years. In 1981 Steve Sabol of NFL Films caught his act and was fascinated. "We were doing a show on the NFL in the '50s," says Sabol, "and several people told me that Art Donovan was the man to see. Well, we went down to his country club in Baltimore, and he was great. When many people talk, it's like watching a train of boxcars go by. But Artie tells stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. We shot 12 rolls of film that day, more than we've shot with anybody. There was enough material for us to use in 10 programs."
As it happened, Late Night producer Barry Sand saw one of those shows. "Art was outrageous, funny and definitely not normal," he says. "It seemed to me that if he could be as funny in a talk show setting, he'd make a wonderful guest." Did Sand realize what a great football player Donovan had been? "No, I had no idea," he says. "Frankly, when I saw the crew cut I wondered if he was still alive."
"In my first appearance," Donovan says, "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.' "
Sure, football's a rough game. When I was with Dallas, a guy jumped up and down on my leg until he broke it. It hurt like hell. I sat out two games, but then they didn't have anybody else so they taped me up and put me in. I told them I couldn't run. They said, "That's O.K., if they run the play at you, just fall down and try to get in the way."
Bill Pellington, the Colts' middle linebacker, was a rough player. The Detroit Lions were out to get him, and a Lion fullback named Tracy broke Pellington's arm in the first game of the '57 season, forcing him out for the year. The next year, they let Pellington put a steel cast on his arm, wrapped in a quarter inch of foam rubber. Well, that's as good as nothing. He was going around, swinging that arm, hitting people. Billy Howton, the wide receiver for the Packers, went up to the ref and said, "Hell, why don't you give him a gun and let him do a clean job on us?"
Donovan's storytelling abilities may make people forget just how good a player he was. Seeing little snippets of film doesn't help. In the highlight film of the famous 1958 championship game, for example, the Giants' big plays were run away from Donovan's side, leaving the camera to record what appears to be a marshmallow wearing No. 70, shirt out, socks down, trotting after the play.
George Young, currently the general manager of the Giants, saw most of Donovan's professional career, first as a fellow tackle on the Dallas Texans and then as a fan of the Colts and close friend (Young was an usher at Donovan's wedding). " Donovan wasn't a very good player when he came into the league," Young says. "He was a 25-year-old rookie who hadn't been taught anything. It wasn't until Weeb Ewbank became head coach in 1954 that Arthur developed."
"I was lucky," says Donovan. "If I had gone to any other team in the league when I broke in, in 1950, I wouldn't have made it. But the Colts were the lousiest team in football, so I made the squad. But when Weeb came, he taught us that by concentrating on the movements of the three linemen in front of you, you can tell where the ball is going."