As a defensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts in the ’50s and ’60s, three decades before a season-busting strike could even be thought of, Art Donovan played a game called football, a primitive contest that bears only a passing resemblance to its high-tech descendant. Donovan was a fanatic about training: He avoided it at all costs. “The only weight I ever lifted during my career was a beer can,” he says proudly. “And I never met a cold cut I didn’t like.” Fatso, as he was known to his teammates for his 6’2″, usually 275-Ib. frame, also met few opponents he couldn’t flatten: During his 11 years in football, from 1950 to 1961, Donovan played on two Baltimore Colts championship teams with legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas and was named All-Pro four times. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1968.
Married and the father of five, Donovan, 63, now runs a neighborhood country club in Baltimore. His hobbies are eating fried foods and telling war stories about the way football was played in the days before the invention of free agency, sack dances and the blow-dryer. An extended version of his reminiscences is available in his recently published autobiography, Fatso, co-written with Bob Drury.
I came to my first Colts training camp in July of 1950, and it was murder, absolute murder. We had a coach named Clem Crow, who must have been nuts. You got to remember that I’d been a Marine, had gone through basic training and spent 26 months in the Pacific during WWII, but the Marine drill instructors had nothing on Clem. He had 10 kids, and I think that’s what made him crazy.
We didn’t memorize plays or anything. We just had two scrimmages a day and hit the living hell out of each other. I wasn’t supposed to be first team that year, but the first-string tackle got hurt, and I got in a game and nailed Cleveland quarterback Otto Graham about three times. After that the first-team job was mine. I was only paid $4,500 for the season, but that was okay because we had one guy who signed for $4,000 and had to play both offense and defense. In fact one time he hurt his shoulder and couldn’t block. Clem told him to get back in the game. “Hit him with your other shoulder,” the coach said.
After a while, I noticed another character flaw in Clem: He didn’t trust anybody. A couple of us would go to mass every Sunday morning, and if we were on the road, every time we’d try to leave the hotel Clem would be guarding the lobby. He’d say, “You guys are going to drink beer.” Then he’d send an assistant coach along to make sure we actually went to church. Clem was on us all the time, but I suppose he had a good reason: The Baltimore Colts of 1950 [1-11] set an all-time record for the most points allowed in 12 games.
I didn’t play with a face mask at first, but then I got kicked in the face during training camp my second year and needed 75 stitches. So I put on the mask, and the other players made fun of me. So I took it off. My first regular season game that year we were playing the Rams, and a big fullback named Deacon Dan Towler got me in the cheek with an elbow. I took another dozen stitches and broke a tooth. I said, “The hell with you guys, I’m putting on the face mask.” I never took it off again.
These days the players have all kinds of equipment and facilities, but we didn’t have much of anything. We didn’t even have a whirlpool. We had a bathtub. The first owner I played for, Abe Watner, felt we were wasting too much adhesive tape so he had the assistant trainer scour the field after practice for discarded tape. He was supposed to straighten it out and use it again.
Back when I played, it was more dog-eat-dog. You had to have guts. I remember Kline Gilbert, a tackle for the Chicago Bears, was yelling at me all the time, so I told him to shut up. He didn’t. On one play he missed a block and fell flat on his back, right in front of me. So I said to myself, “This is my chance.” I jumped up and landed on his chest with both feet—boom! All I could hear was the moans. A year or so later he got me back; it always worked out that way. Big Daddy Lipscomb was mean and liked to pile on after the play ended. I bet we lost more of our players from his late hits than to injuries from the other teams. I remember one time we had Frank Gifford on the ground. I look over and Big Daddy is heading right for the pile. Luckily I duck my head just in time, but boom, he snapped Gino Marchetti’s leg, sounded like a rifle shot.
A lot of these guys were surprised that I could catch them. All they knew is they’d look over and see a fat man with droopy socks. But I was quick off the line; nobody could beat me for the first three, four or five yards. After that I wasn’t what you would call fast. When Weeb Ewbank took over as coach of the Colts [in 1954], he used to race all the rookies against me for 50 yards. Anybody who couldn’t beat me would be cut.
The only thing I worried about was my weight. Coach Ewbank wanted me to play at 270, and it was tough to get down. The man was a royal pain about weight. I think he wanted a squad of 160-lb. guys out there. I would get a bonus if I played at 270, and whenever they weighed me, they would take me to a grain store and put me on the scales. Before the weigh-in I used to get into a hot whirlpool—we finally did get one—wearing a rubber suit, and I’d stay in there for hours. I could lose 12 lbs. that way. I’d do anything to make weight, even pop out my false teeth. I’d stand there like a baby—wet, naked and with no teeth.
My problem was I loved to eat. Still do. Both sides of my family had come from Ireland in the 19th century for the same reason: There was nothing to eat over there. Since then I’ve tried to make up for the potato famine by making the potato the only vegetable that passes these lips. I was one of the first people to really appreciate French cuisine—they invented french fries, didn’t they? For the past 45 years I haven’t eaten anything but kosher salami, kosher bologna, corned beef, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and, like I said, french fries, my concession to the vegetable family. Never steak—I don’t like anything you have to chew on. You can imagine that keeping the weight down was a problem. When I retired my teammates gave me two beautiful suits. I gained 20 lbs. in the next two weeks and never wore them. Now I guess I’m about 340.
I didn’t want to retire. The two saddest moments of my life were when my mother died and when I was told I couldn’t play football for the Colts anymore. I was 38 years old in 1962, and I thought I’d give it another shot. But Coach Ewbank told me they had two new guys ahead of me and they were going with youth. So I went into business with a liquor company and eventually bought two liquor stores of my own. But after 21 years and five robberies, I got out. I made a boatload of money, too. I mean a boatload.
Now I got this country club where my wife, Dottie, and I have been living since 1967, and just a few months ago a fella walks in here and offers me a bundle for the country club. But I don’t want to sell. I got all I need. What would I do with the money? The only things I need that money can buy are a couple of cold-cut sandwiches and a six-pack of Schlitz.