Art Donovan Jr. in his later years

Art Donovan Jr. in his later years

I noted with great sadness the passing of football great Art Donovan earlier this week. Among other things, Donovan played in the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. Sometimes called The Greatest Game Ever Played, that contest signaled the arrival of professional football as a major sport. Until this time college football still predominated in the national consciousness. They played in Yankee Stadium and the  Colts won 23-17 in overtime. When journalist David Halberstam was killed in an automobile accident in April 2007, he was en route to interviewing Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book about that game to be published for the 50th anniversary in 2008. Frank Gifford finished Halberstam’s work, which included many great stories about the characters who played in that long ago game and era.

I was too young–okay, not yet born–to remember Donovan’s playing for those great Baltimore Colts teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s. I remember him for his appearances on David Letterman in the early 1980s. Even then Donovan looked like someone out of another time with his crew cut and uncalculated demeanor. Letterman’s style was still fresh and new at that time; his detached irony, not yet mimicked by others and coming late in the night at the 12:30 am time slot, contrasted well with the more cerebral Johnny Carson. Donovan was a always a great guest, self-effacing and funny, but obviously intelligent and aware at the same time. Memory is a tricky thing–this is more than three decades ago now–but I seem to remember Donovan recounting a tale of eating a case of spam as part of a bet with his Marine buddies during WW2 while stationed in the Pacific. He indeed ate the whole thing.

Mike Donovan's 1909 memoir

Mike Donovan’s 1909 memoir

What I did not know until reading his obituary in the London Guardian, was that Art Donovan Jr. was part of a prominent family in American sport and military history. His father, Art Sr., and grandfather, Mike, are both members of the Boxing Hall of Fame. It gets better. Mike Donovan was a Civil War veteran who fought in the Battle of Chattanooga. After the war he ended up in New York City and became a prominent boxer and trainer, going on to teach none other than Teddy Roosevelt the finer points of the Sweet Science. His son fought in the Great War and afterward became one of the greatest referees of the twentieth century, calling the Louis-Schmeling fight at Yankee Stadium–the place where his son, Art Jr., helped bring professional football into the modern era two decades later. It is an incredible story. The world seems a little emptier without Art Donovan.

(top image/Maryland Stater)