In the 1990s, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the elite teams in the National Football League, and much of the attention and recognition they received was for their high-powered offense and the stars they possessed on that side of the football.
But the X-factor of the Niners’ success back then was their defense, and one of their defensive mainstays was safety Merton Hanks.
Hanks made a living by stymying opposing offenses and wide receivers, and he became pretty well known for his colorful personality.
Growing Up In Dallas
Merton Edward Hanks was born on March 12, 1968 in Manhattan, Kan. to Connie Harris and Richard Hanks, an electrical engineer.
Right away, Merton Hanks faced a huge obstacle when his father Richard was shot and killed when he was just an infant. In addition, he was born with a central nervous system disorder that caused his hands to involuntarily shake
The incident forced Connie Harris to become a single mother to her six children, of whom Hanks was the youngest. As the “baby” of the family, he grew into a persona that some would call cocky and ostentatious.
“He was just kind of sheltered and spoiled,” said Harris. “We say he’s cocky and a little bit selfish, but we sort of made him that way.”
When he was coming up, Hanks would spend much of his time hanging out with his two best friends, Doug Adams and D’Wayne Tanner, and he felt that Adams’ parents were like his own surrogate parents.
Starting in junior high school, Hanks honed an admirable work ethic, as he would work jobs during his free time to help support his family. Those jobs included working at a fast food restaurant, sweeping streets, cleaning office buildings and being a waiter.
“Everybody worked,” Hanks said of his family, his childhood. “Everybody contributed.”
The Hanks family moved to Dallas shortly after the death of Richard Hanks, and young Merton, as one may expect, grew up a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. In fact, at one point he got to meet Tony Dorsett, the Hall of Fame running back for the Cowboys.
Before long, Hanks would start to become a gridiron star in his own right. At Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, he was a star track and field athlete, and he would become a district champion in that sport.
Flying High As A Hawkeye
At the University of Iowa, Hanks did triple duty, playing both cornerback and safety on defense, as well as on special teams.
His freshman year of 1987 was relatively quiet, but in the Holiday Bowl that year, he offered a glimpse into who he was becoming.
Playing against Wyoming, Hanks blocked a punt, leading to an Iowa touchdown, and later he blocked a 52-yard field goal attempt at the end of the game to ensure a 20-19 win for his team.
Through his four-year career with the Hawkeyes, Hanks intercepted a total of 10 passes, three of them coming as a junior and four as a senior. In 1990, his senior season, he also managed to block three kicks, giving him a total of seven blocked kicks for his career at Iowa.
That year, he earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors as a cornerback and was named to the All-America first team.
Off the field, Hanks was taking advantage of other opportunities. When he was a freshman, he started dating a junior named Marva, a 6-foot-5 star on Iowa’s basketball team, and the two hit it off.
When Hanks was just 20, he and Marva decided to get married. Like plenty of young lovebirds who get hitched in their early 20s, it didn’t quite work out, as Hanks and his beloved got separated just four months later.
Luckily, after just a couple of months, the two reconciled, and this time, they found a commonality that would keep them together for the duration.
“We were convinced our marriage needed a stronger foundation,” said Marva, “and we rededicated ourselves to Christ.”
As Hanks finished his football tenure at Iowa (he would graduate with a degree in liberal arts), he was unsure about what his future held. He participated in the NFL scouting combine, but he managed to run the 40-yard dash in 4.74 seconds, which is the football equivalent of scoring a 75 on an IQ test.
It was inexplicable, as Hanks was actually pretty fast, but it apparently gave most NFL teams reason to not have him on their draft radar. As a result, he briefly considered going to graduate school.
Meanwhile, another challenge was unfolding for him. In the spring of 1991, Marva gave birth to an infant who was born about 2-1/2 months premature. The baby soon died due to his undeveloped lungs and kidneys.
Hanks didn’t deal with the setback all that well.
“I wasn’t very mature about the situation,” Hanks said of the period after the baby’s death. “I initially didn’t grieve with Marva, and she felt like she was by herself.”
Luckily for him, as well as his wife, they were about to land in greener pastures.
A San Francisco Treat
If most NFL teams were thoroughly unimpressed with Hanks, the San Francisco 49ers did have interest. Several of their staffers had scouted him and his ability to bottle up opposing wide receivers, and their curiosity was piqued enough to see exactly how much he had to offer.
Niners defensive backs coach Ray Rhodes caught a flight to Texas in order to put Hanks through a private workout. The day of the workout was the same day Hanks’ baby had passed away, and he made no excuses, as he still showed up to the workout with the blessing of Marva.
He was put through another 40-yard dash, and although his time was still unimpressive at 4.58 seconds, it was good enough for Rhodes, who was sold enough to recommend that his team must draft Hanks.
On draft day 1991, Rhodes and scouting director Tony Razzano were constantly in the ear of head coach George Seifert, trying to convince him to select Hanks. They pleaded with him to the point where, according to Rhodes, they were literally screaming at him.
The first and second rounds went by without Hanks being chosen. So did the third and fourth rounds, and like that, Hanks was still on the board at the end of day one of the NFL draft.
The next day, as the fifth round opened up, Rhodes was now begging Seifert to take a chance on Hanks. The coach finally gave in, and Hanks became a 49er by virtue of the 123rd overall pick.
He was disappointed to only be a fifth-round pick, but it didn’t exactly dent his confidence or belief in himself.
“Quite frankly, I was disgusted,” Hanks said of his draft day. “I was a first-round talent that slid to the fifth-round because I had a poor combine. I remember telling (secondary coach) Ray Rhodes that I’d be better than a lot of players picked ahead of me in my rookie year.
San Francisco had won four Super Bowls in the 1980s behind Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, first under former head coach Bill Walsh and then Seifert. The majority of the headlines and attention went to their offense, which was termed the “West Coast Offense,” a scheme that spread the field and relied on short passes.
But the real key to their success, as is the case for most championship NFL teams, as well as most championship teams in the NBA as well, was their defense, which was consistently one of the best in the league.
With Hall of Fame safety and corner Ronnie Lott gone, Hanks had an opportunity to keep the Niners elite on defense. He started out playing the cornerback position as a rookie, and he would be mentored by Eric Wright, a member of the coaching staff who had been a star corner for San Fran throughout the ’80s.
“I credit a lot of people with my early development, but Eric Wright would have be the single biggest reason for my success early on,” Hanks said.
Before long, the Niners’ coaching staff realized that as good a corner Hanks was becoming, he would be even better off playing safety.
At 6-foot-2 and about 180 pounds, he wasn’t the biggest defensive back around, but he had a knack for getting to the ball, great instincts as far as anticipating plays, and outstanding speed and quickness.
In 1992, Hanks’ second season, he started playing safety, and in 16 games that year (he started only five of them), he showed promise, recording 64 tackles and two interceptions.
With Montana sidelined due to an elbow injury, Steve Young became the team’s new quarterback moving forward, and he led it to a surprising 14-2 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship, where it lost to the Cowboys.
After free safety Dana Hall got injured, Hanks became a full-time starter at that position in 1993, and he tallied 67 tackles and three interceptions, one of which he ran back for a touchdown.
Again the Niners got to the conference championship game, but they once again lost to their longtime NFC rivals, the Cowboys.
Dancing To The Top
The team had some things to shore up heading into the 1994 season, one of them being its defense, which had slipped to 16th in points allowed. San Fran shored it up big time by several players, including Deion Sanders, one of the best cornerbacks in the game, as well as one of the game’s biggest personalities, and linebacker Ken Norton Jr.
Hanks started the season playing the other corner position, but he would soon be moved back to free safety on the advice of Rhodes.
The ’94 campaign would be something of a coming-out party for the fourth-year man. He had 72 tackles and seven interceptions that year while appearing in the Pro Bowl for the first time, and he helped the Niners dramatically improve their defensive rankings.
In a Week 11 showdown against the Cowboys, Hanks had two picks to help San Fran secure a big 21-14 win.
His teammates couldn’t help but sing his praises.
“Mert covers more ground than anyone else at his position, and his quick changes of direction surprise a lot of quarterbacks,” Young said.
Rice would even compare Hanks to a smaller Lott.
He also became well-known for a dance he would perform after a big play, during which he would bob his head up and down while gyrating his body in synch with his head in a similar fashion. He said he came up with the idea for the dance while watching the “pigeon dance” of Bert from Sesame Street.
— 🏈Franky Niner🏈 (@1TrueNiner) July 21, 2018
Hanks’ dance became so popular that it would eventually become adopted by Los Angeles Lakers superstar Shaquille O’Neal.
With a 13-3 record, the 49ers had high hopes entering the playoffs, but they would have to vanquish their rivals in order to achieve their coveted return to glory.
Luckily for them, they got their much-desired rematch with Dallas in the NFC Championship Game. In the past, their inability to prevent the Cowboys from making big offensive plays was their downfall.
But this time, Hanks had the game of his life with five tackles, and the Niners triumphed in a game that was never that close. San Francisco led 21-0, then 31-14 before coasting to a 38-28 final margin.
In Super Bowl XXIX, the Niners would meet the San Diego Chargers. In those days, the AFC was rather weak, and the game was considered something of a formality, as the Niners were one of the biggest favorites in Super Bowl history.
There were no surprises in store, as the Niners blew out San Diego, 49-26, giving Hanks a world championship ring and the ultimate validation of all of his hard work and perseverance through the years.
Hanks continued to rise like a tasty cake in an oven in 1995, putting up 63 tackles and five interceptions. He again got voted to appear in the Pro Bowl, while also earning First-Team All-Pro recognition and serious consideration for the Defensive Player of the year award.
The Niners proved that their playoff win over the Cowboys last year was no fluke when they walloped them in Week 11, 38-20. Hanks helped the cause by recovering a fumble by star Dallas wideout Michael Irvin and running it back for a touchdown.
With an 11-5 record, San Fran won the NFC West for the fourth year in a row. However, its season ended early when Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers took them down in the divisional round, 27-17.
The 1996 campaign was another strong showing by Hanks, as he had 63 tackles and four interceptions and earned another Pro Bowl nod. The Niners went 12-4 in the regular season, but again they lost to the Packers in the divisional round, 35-14.
San Fran went through plenty of adversity in 1997. Rice suffered a severe knee injury in Week 1 that forced him to miss virtually the rest of the season, and in the same game, Young sustained a concussion.
With their main offensive weapon sidelined, the Niners needed to rely more on their defense to win games, and Hanks responded with one of his best seasons. His 60 tackles and six interceptions sent him to the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year while helping the team establish arguably the best defense in the NFL.
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After beating the Minnesota Vikings to open the playoffs, the 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since they won the Super Bowl. But the Packers proved they still had their number by defeating them 23-10.
Heading into the 1998 season, some may have thought the Niners were starting to decline. It may have been at least somewhat true for Hanks, who was now 30 and saw his numbers decline to 48 tackles.
Not coincidentally, the team’s defensive rankings fell, and despite a 12-4 record and a solid bounce-back season from Rice, it looked like it would have its hands full in the wild card playoff round against none other than their own personal tormentors, the Packers.
This time, however, wideout Terrell Owens caught a touchdown pass from Young with a few seconds left in the fourth quarter to give San Francisco a sweet 30-27 win.
But the Niners didn’t have a lot left in the tank, as they would lose to the Atlanta Falcons in the next round. Hanks’ age was starting to become very evident, as he was unable to deal with Jamal Anderson, the Falcons’ star running back.
One Last Hurrah In Seattle
The win over Green Bay would mark the invisible line of demarcation for the Niners’ dynasty. Hanks was cut by the team the following preseason, and Young would soon retire, making the end of the franchise as millions had come to know it for almost two decades.
Hanks joined the Seattle Seahawks for the 1999 season, a team that was coached by Mike Holmgren, the old Packers coach who had just made his way to the Emerald City.
The Seahawks were a mediocre team looking to make the jump to respectability, and they were perhaps thinking that Hanks’ abilities, though in decline, along with his experience would help.
He would play in only 12 games that season and appear in the starting lineup for only one of them. His production declined to 22 tackles and two interceptions.
The Seahawks’ defense improved slightly compared to the 1998 season, and although their offense wasn’t strong enough to hold up its end of the bargain, they won nine games, which was enough to get them into the playoffs.
Hanks did not appear in Seattle’s 20-17 wild card loss to the Miami Dolphins, and just like that, his NFL career was over, as he retired shortly afterward.
After the early turbulence of his marriage, Hanks has settled down and become a family man. He and his wife Marva had two daughters, Maya and Milan, both of whom were born early in his NFL career.
Marva Hanks is much more than a housewife. She founded Marva Hanks Consulting LLC, which offers consulting services to athletes, executives, entrepreneurs, entertainers and average workaday individuals to help with financial planning, relationship advice and more.
When one of the Hanks’ daughters was diagnosed with autism, Marva Hanks helped start Facing Autism in order to create more awareness about the incurable developmental disability. She is also involved in causes aimed towards awareness and research for other serious illnesses, as well as public education.
Many former athletes simply kick back and lay low in retirement. Some start businesses, some go into broadcasting and some are heavily involved in charitable causes.
Merton Hanks decided to go in a different direction, as he joined the NFL offices as the assistant director of operations, working with Gene Washington, who was the vice president of operations and himself a former 49ers player.
In that capacity, the former safety would specialize in equipment and uniform issues for all NFL teams, while also talking to college football squads about the challenges of playing pro football.
After Washington retired, Hanks got promoted and took on greater responsibilities. One of those responsibilities became player conduct and discipline, meaning that he was the man who doled out fines and suspensions.
In 2016 he moved on to the NCAA’s Conference USA, becoming Senior Associate Commissioner, where he led football and baseball operations by overseeing officiating, schedules, player conduct, and game operations among other responsibilities.
Hanks then became the senior associate commissioner for football operations of the NCAA’s Pac-12 conference in 2020. In that capacity, he worked directly under conference commissioner Larry Scott and handled officiating, scheduling, game operations, bowl game relationships and much more.
Hanks has also done some charity work. In 2000 he coached in a charity basketball game known as the “Battle of the Bay” which featured members of the 49ers and Raiders playing against each other.
The contest raised money for causes aimed towards education for autistic children, the 49er Foundation, which helps kids and the overall San Francisco community and the Tracey Biletnikoff Foundation for Battered Women.