The cherished keepsake of the 1958 NFL championship game — often called "the greatest game ever played" — was stolen from a Hong Kong hotel room in 1977. Donovan assumed it was gone forever.
But 34 years later, the ring has been returned to its rightful owner after it showed up for sale on the Internet. A Howard County police detective followed up on a tip and found the ring, engraved with the defensive tackle's name and jersey number, listed for $25,000 on Craigslist.
"I hoped the one who stole it had fun with it," Donovan, 86, said on Tuesday. "What can you do? Life goes on. People want to ask, 'Did you weep?' There's a lot more things in this world that are more serious than losing a ring."
His wife, Dottie, was more excited about the ring's return. She had put it on a charm bracelet along with the couple's class rings from college, which remain missing. But the championship ring — from the 23-17 sudden-death victory over the New York Giants — is now back home with the Hall of Famer in Towson.
"It's unbelievable," said Donovan's eldest daughter, Debbie Donovan, noting the ring's three-decade-long, 8,000-mile odyssey from Hong Kong to Curtis Bay to Elkridge.
"It's just beautiful," she said, the ring safely back in family hands. "There's not a ding, not a scratch on it."
Police were able to recover the ring when a detective posed as a buyer, offering $20,000 for the keepsake.
Police said that the person who tried to sell the ring, identified in a police report as Charles Ice II, will not be charged with a crime. Ice told detectives that the ring had been purchased years earlier by his wife's now- deceased former husband, and that Ice didn't know it had been stolen.
Ice told police he decided to sell the ring because his Harley Davidson motorcycle shop had gone under and he needed cash. He and his wife Katina sold their jewelry for scrap, but thought the ring might be worth more if sold, according to the report.
Police almost missed their opportunity to get it back. Ice told detectives that someone had offered to buy the ring for $18,000 a week before Detective Wade Zufall put in his bid, but Ice turned down the offer, holding out for more.
The ring went missing while the Donovans vacationed at a Hong Kong hotel staffed by temporary workers during a strike. The ring's whereabouts were a mystery until the late 1980s, when police said a jeweler called Donovan and wanted to "broker a deal for the return of the ring." The player refused.
Police said the ring resurfaced in 1997 or 1998 in a bar in South Baltimore's Curtis Bay. Ice told detectives that his wife's former husband, Harry Edward Wehner III, used winnings from a Las Vegas casino to buy the ring for $15,000.
The ring went to the Ices after Wehner died and was kept in in the couple's safe. It was all but forgotten until the couple hit financial trouble and decided to sell it.
Shortly after the ring appeared on Craigslist, one of Donovan's friends spotted it and called another friend, retired Howard County police officer Peter Wright. He contacted Donovan and then the police, who set up a sting.
The detective, Zufall, bid $20,000 for the ring and set up a meeting with Ice at his closed motorcycle shop in Elkridge. Zufall told Ice the ring had been stolen and was being seized.
For his part, Donovan remains a bit mystified at all the attention.
"The ring is great," he said. "But time marches on."