By Peter Richmond
It was over the first Schlitz "Tall Boy" that Art Donovan and I put away in the kitchen of the Valley Country Club in Towson in '86 -- he owned and managed the place -- when he told me about Kusen's. Kusen's was the Colts' favorite bar during the '58 season, when pro football started its long strange trip to its current perch atop the entertainment world. Kusen's was close to Memorial Stadium, the old semi-circle of brick with a centerfield view that featured rows of tidy blue-collar Baltimore homes. Ivan Kusen didn't know the game, but he bought season tickets anyway.
"He'd always say, 'You goddamned football players!'" Artie laughed. He looked like a large artillery shell tapering from a Michelin Man gut to a small head topped by a crewcut you could have putted off. Befitting Artie, the country club wasn't really a country club, just a place where you could hold events and parties. With a great sports bar.
Anyway, after closing time, it would be Artie who'd give Ivan a ride home, with all the receipts and money in a leather bag that Ivan would put on his lap and cover with string beans and corn in case anything untoward might happen on the ride home.
When Artie's mother came to town -- the woman who, upon first learning that her kid was to get an NFL tryout from her husband down on the sidewalk, shouted out of the second-story window of their brownstone in the Bronx, "Those big guys'll kill him!" -- the first thing she'd want to do was to go up the hill to Kusen's for an old-fashioned. When Kusen died, Artie was the executor of his will. This wasn't unusual; all of the Colts -- Fatso (Artie), Mumbles (kicker Steve Myhra), Boulevard (tackle Jim Parker, because of the size of his butt,) Big Daddy (the imposing Eugene Lipscomb), Spats (the natty Lenny Moore) -- would regularly accept invitations from fans in the neighborhoods to kids' birthday parties and cookouts. It was Baltimore. It was family.
When Artie dominated at defensive tackle, before '58, the sport was one step ahead of pro wrestling in the public's perception. That championship game in the Stadium, just down the street from where Artie grew up, changed everything. It was pretty cool for Artie, and not just because, behind Artie and Gino Marchetti and Lipscomb and Raymond Berry and Johnny Unitas, they beat the Giants in overtime, so that Californians could catch the dramatic Unitas mastery at the end and the first hook had been planted. No, because the Colts spent the night -- along with the Giants -- in the once-grand Grand Concourse Hotel on the once-grand Grand Concourse, an avenue modeled on the Champs d'Elysee, where half the Giants lived (management saved Charlie Conerly's wife's silver for her during the offseason).
Artie in the Grand Concourse Hotel. As a kid in the Bronx, he and his buddies would hang outside the ballroom, and when everyone was dancing, they'd dart in and steal the pitchers of beer off the tables, then dart out to the Grand Concourse. It wasn't all that risky, actually: The maître d' was named Jerry, from Artie's neighborhood, and happily turned a blind eye. The big-shot lawyers at the bar -- the place was a block from the stolid Deco courthouse, three blocks from the stadium -- weren't to Jerry's taste.
Artie wanted to be a cop, then a teacher. He applied to Columbia to see if he could get some teaching credits; the Ivy bastion, after reviewing the application, advised him to stick with professional football. So he did. And took another ring in '59 when they routed the Giants. Marchetti was the leader of the defense; the man his teammates called Fatso was the court jester -- until the opening kickoff. He was good. He's in the Hall of Fame. He was All-Pro four times. Then after the final whistle, he'd be Fatso again, when he'd bitch about how the strongest refreshment in the locker room was orange soda.
By the '80s, Artie knew he had a good thing, this gift of storytelling. So natural were his chops that he would become a Letterman regular. But he knew it was shtick. He was a Bronx guy at heart. And when he was running the country club down in Maryland, you could always find him -- not at the bar, in that basement kitchen.
Now Artie's died, after a very good run, and with the loss of its last true muse, the transition from lunch-pail to limo-league is complete. This is not to be bemoaned. The '58 game was actually a really bad one, skill-wise: fumbles, sloppy tackles. Artie never said they were great athletes.
I just wish Artie were going on Letterman tonight to tell one more story. It'd probably be the one about the '54 exhibition game in Louisville a few days after the circus had left town. The Giants' offensive line wasn't just horses---, Artie remembered; they flung elephant s--- at the Colt d-line.
I couldn't find the score of that one online, but then, why did I even look for it? The score wasn't the point. The story was. And if we aren't lacking for great football these days, we're sure lacking for storylines that would make Ivan Kusen laugh.
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Peter Richmond has written for five newspapers, been featured in 14 anthologies and spent 13 years on staff at GQ. He has written about everything from sports to murder to movie stars to vasectomies, and has published six books, one a New York Times bestseller. His most recent, "Badasses," a history of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, has been released in paperback.