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Struttin'
Michael Silver
January 08, 1996
Merton Hanks of the 49ers will have you know that he has become the premier safety in the NFL
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January 08, 1996

Struttin'

Merton Hanks of the 49ers will have you know that he has become the premier safety in the NFL

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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, 6½ 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 herself."

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 overall pick.

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 dangerous."

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."

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