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 longest.
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."
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 truth."
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."