HUMILITY IS NOT one of his many endearing traits, but give
Merton Hanks credit for being honest. He admits that he spends a
few extra seconds staring at the mirror every morning.
When Hanks, the San Francisco 49ers' All-Pro free safety, checks
out his reflection, this is what he sees: 185 pounds of skin,
bone and muscle stretched over a 74-inch frame that is devoid of
waist or waste, an elongated image that looks as though it's
being viewed in a fun-house mirror; a handsome pair of chocolate
eyes that have witnessed their share of heartache; and a neck
that, with the possible exception of the one belonging to
Oakland Raider running back Harvey Williams, has to be the NFL's
But as eye-catching as Hanks's neck is, especially when he
breaks into his dance after making a big play, it's the area
above it that has attracted the most attention from his
teammates. With the departures of running back Ricky Watters and
cornerback Deion Sanders after the 1994 season, Hanks, in a
figurative sense, became the 49er with the biggest head.
"I'd be lying to you if I said his head has not grown," says
Niner cornerback Eric Davis, who carpools to work with Hanks.
"It's the new Merton. He wants to be noticed when he walks into
a room or when he walks onto the field."
January 8, 1996
The most dynamic player on the NFL's best defense, Hanks will
start in his second straight Pro Bowl next month. Teammate Jerry
Rice, the best receiver in history, compares Hanks to Ronnie
Lott, the former 49er safety and future Hall of Famer.
Sitting with his wife, Marva, at the kitchen table of their home
in San Jose, Hanks, 27, reflects on his newly acquired fame with
an air of supreme confidence. Ask him to name the best player at
his position, and he'll tell you it's Merton for certain.
"I'm just absolutely convinced I'm the best free safety in the
league," Hanks says. "I guess you're not really supposed to
'pub' yourself like that, but I look at the film--and it's the
Hanks has lacked many things at various points in his life, but
confidence has never been one of them. The youngest of six
children in a single-parent household, Hanks, who suffers from a
disorder of the central nervous system that causes his hands to
shake, was the quintessential baby in Connie Harris's family.
"He was just kind of sheltered and spoiled," says Harris, whose
first husband, an electrical engineer named Richard Hanks, was
shot and killed when Merton was a baby. "We say he's cocky and a
little bit selfish, but we sort of made him that way."
Harris moved her family to the modest Stults Road section of
Dallas, near the Cowboys' then training facility, and young
Merton spent more time hanging out at the homes of his best
friends, Doug Adams and D'Wayne Tanner, than he did at his own.
Hanks refers to Adams as his brother and to Adams's parents,
Mary and Marvin Smith, as his de facto mother and father. "Mert
thought he was God's gift to women," Tanner says. "In high
school I wrote an article about him for our neighborhood paper,
and the headline was CONFIDENCE OR COCKINESS?"
The three friends are so close that they gave one another veto
power over their choices of wives. "I had been going out with
Merton for three years," Marva says indignantly, "and when I
heard that, I thought about smacking them all."
A former basketball player at the University of Iowa who
graduated with a degree in communications, Marva is 6'5",
model-svelte and does not suffer fools gladly. She and Merton
met at Iowa when he was a freshman and she was a junior, and
while the relationship has produced two daughters--Maya Angelou,
3, and Milan, 2--it has also seen its share of turmoil. The
couple married when Merton was 20 and Marva was 22, but they
separated four months later, in April 1989. "We were together
all the time when we dated," Merton says. "Then we got married,
and all of a sudden I wanted to be one of the boys." But after a
couple of months apart, Merton and Marva decided to reconcile.
"We were convinced our marriage needed a stronger foundation,"
says Marva, "and we rededicated ourselves to Christ."
Their faith underwent a stern test during the spring before the
1991 NFL draft. An All--Big Ten cornerback, Hanks had performed
lackadaisically at the NFL scouting combine, running the 40 in
4.74 seconds--the equivalent, for the speedy Hanks, of showing
up at a job interview without pants. But several Niner staffers
had seen enough film of Hanks's shutting down receivers to stay
interested. Then defensive backs coach Ray Rhodes (now coach of
the Philadelphia Eagles) flew to Houston, where the couple had
moved, to give Hanks a private workout. It was a day neither
Merton nor Marva will ever forget. "It was the day we lost our
baby," Marva says. Two weeks before the draft Marva, 61/2 months
pregnant, prematurely delivered a boy who died because of
undeveloped lungs and kidneys.
"I remember his face vividly," Merton says. "He was going to
look just like me. I still have his little blanket."
As Marva recovered in the hospital, she and Merton agreed he
should keep the appointment with Rhodes at Texas Southern
University. Hanks, dazed and devastated, ran a 4.58 40--fast
enough to satisfy the coach. After being bypassed on the first
day of the draft, Hanks, who had earned a degree in liberal
arts, was contemplating life as a graduate student and facing
yet another marital crisis. "I wasn't very mature about the
situation," Hanks says of the period after the baby's death. "I
initially didn't grieve with Marva, and she felt like she was by
The third and fourth rounds of the draft passed without Hanks's
being selected. In the 49er draft room Rhodes and then scouting
director Tony Razzano pleaded their case with coach George
Seifert. By round 4, Rhodes recalls, they were screaming at him.
By round 5, the next day, Rhodes was reduced to begging. Seifert
finally relented, and San Francisco chose Hanks with the 123rd
Hanks was immediately taken under the wing of Eric Wright, who
was one of the game's best coverage cornerbacks and a noted
loudmouth while earning four Super Bowl rings with the Niners
during the '80s. When he retired and joined the San Francisco
coaching staff after the '90 season, Wright made Hanks his pet
project, and as a cornerback Hanks did his best to emulate his
mentor, right down to the wiggling fingers and quick backpedal.
But when Hanks began shining in the team's nickel alignments,
coaches noticed he also had an aptitude for the safety position,
where his nose for the ball compensated for his lack of size.
Two teammates, tackle Steve Wallace and guard Roy Foster,
nicknamed Hanks "Murky," because, says Wallace, "when you go
into his area, it's murky back there, like swamp water, and it's
Hanks has ranked among the league's top playmakers since early
in the 1993 season when he replaced injured free safety Dana
Hall, who had been the 49ers' first-round draft pick the
previous year. San Francisco shifted Hanks back to cornerback
before the '94 season, but the signing of Deion Sanders two
weeks into the season necessitated a shake-up in the secondary.
Seifert wanted to keep Hanks at corner and bench Eric Davis.
Rhodes persuaded him to move Hanks back to free safety and sit
Hall, who is now a Cleveland Brown reserve. Hanks reclaimed the
free safety spot before the fourth game of the '94 season, and
the league may never be the same.
Hanks can run with receivers, and his instincts and range allow
him to hang back in the zone and break quickly on the ball. Like
Sanders, who is able to sucker quarterbacks into throwing
interceptions, Hanks lulls passers into foolish throws--a major
reason for his 12 picks over the past two seasons, third best in
the league behind Aeneas Williams of the Arizona Cardinals and
Terry McDaniel of the Oakland Raiders.
"Mert covers more ground than anyone else at his position,"
Niner quarterback Steve Young says, "and his quick changes of
direction surprise a lot of quarterbacks." Hanks has also saved
many of his biggest plays for the 49ers' biggest games. He had
two interceptions in last season's 21-14 regular-season victory
over the Dallas Cowboys, and a 38-yard touchdown run with a
Michael Irvin fumble at Texas Stadium on Nov. 12-the 49ers'
second score in a 38-20 victory over the Cowboys.
Rice, who should know, unequivocally tabs Hanks as the league's
best safety and bristles at the notion that the lanky Hanks is
not a hard hitter. "That's bogus," Rice says. "He's like a
smaller Ronnie Lott. He doesn't mind sticking his head in there."
But while the no-nonsense Lott viewed overt celebration as
anathema, Hanks is not bashful about prancing around. Sanders's
arrival last season loosened up the 49er locker room, and Hanks
took his cockiness to another level, playing Showtime to Deion's
Prime Time. Exhibit A is Hanks's celebration dance, an
exaggerated strut performed while his "chicken neck," as Wright
calls it, bops up and down like a pogo stick. Hanks says that
the inspiration for the dance came from watching Bert's pigeon
dance on Sesame Street with Maya. So call Hanks's creation the
With Sanders in town, Hanks also began to strut when he was away
from the field. Says Marva, "I think the guys kind of used Deion
as an excuse to do all the things they always wanted to do. All
of a sudden Merton had to get limos to go out and eat, with
sharp suits, bodyguards and an entourage--the whole bit."
But Hanks, like Sanders, also appreciates the value of hard
work. As far back as junior high school he has held an
assortment of jobs, from busing tables at a Wendy's to his
position last summer, when he worked as a human resources intern
at Bank of America's San Francisco office. Hanks is fervent
about preparing for a postfootball career, even though he soon
stands to make a huge chunk of change playing the game. With a
salary of $650,000, he is among the league's most underpaid
stars. His contract runs through 1996, but 49er president Carmen
Policy says that shortly after the '95 season ends, the team
hopes to open negotiations on a lucrative extension.
Money has been at the root of numerous disputes between Hanks
and his mother, conflicts that have sometimes turned ugly.
Harris has threatened to sue her son, demanding that he pay her
routine medical bills and fund a major remodeling of her home.
Hanks responded by writing Harris a letter detailing exactly
what he will and won't pay for. "I think my mom was testing me,"
Hanks says. "As I got closer to graduating, and it looked like I
might be drafted, she started cultivating a relationship that
wasn't necessarily there."
Marva's long left arm reaches across the table and meets her
husband's shaking right hand. "I tell Marva she's the person who
keeps me humble," Hanks says. "I have a confidence in myself
that borders on arrogance, but I know when I need to learn
something, and I'm open to learning it." Marva nods, Merton
smiles, and, for a moment, his head doesn't seem so big at all.