Growing up in the Dallas neighborhood of Lake Highlands, current Conference USA Senior Associate Commissioner Merton Hanks knew that somehow, someway, football was going to be his lifelong pursuit. Growing up in a hotbed of football, such as North Texas, Hanks was drawn to the game because of the competition and the teamwork that it had to offer.
“I loved the camaraderie that football embodies,” said Hanks. “Even as a kid, I knew it was important to be a part of something and football was unique in that way. I think that and the physicality of the game are what I loved best about it as a kid and that’s what made me want to keep playing.”
Though his first love was always football, Hanks found himself excelling in pretty much every sport he attempted, especially track & field. A superb athlete, Hanks split virtually his entire playing career until his senior year in high school on both sides of the ball. It was then that his coach made the proclamation that his career would be best served in the secondary exclusively.
“This a pretty interesting story because my coach at the time, Dr. Bobby Burns [who is now the superintendent of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District near Dallas], when I see him I say he launched two careers,” Hanks said. “My teammate at Lake Highlands was longtime NFL kicker Matt Stover. He was our punter and kicker at the time and I was playing wide receiver and in the secondary. He told Matt, no more punting, you’re a kicker and he told me that my career was going to be a free safety. I always tease him that because of that one conversation, just kind out of the blue, he launched two pros.”
His speed and skill earned him a scholarship to the University of Iowa. It was in Iowa City where Hanks honed his ball-hawking skills. He would earn All-American honors for the Hawkeyes. It was the chance to play for a legend and the opportunity to further his track & field career that led him to the University of Iowa in the first place. It would be a decision that ultimately paid huge dividends.
“It was a great program, obviously, and I was really looking forward to playing for [legendary former Head Coach] Hayden Fry,” he said. “I learned a lot while I was there at Iowa. Some of my favorite memories are going to the Rose Bowl and winning the Big 10 championship. My favorite memory, quite frankly was being in the Holiday Bowl in 1987 against [the University of] Wyoming. I blocked a kick that game and helped us win. As a freshman, it meant a lot for me to be able to contribute to a big win like that.”
Hanks would be drafted into the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers and would soon be indoctrinated into the legendary “49er way” of playing. He would become a four-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro, and a Super Bowl champion with the Niners in Super Bowl XXIX.
“With the 49ers it was all about professionalism,” he said. “[Owner and recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee] Eddie DeBartolo told us from day one, that whatever we needed to be successful, the organization would do that. As long as we conducted ourselves professionally and did our best, we always knew we had the organization supporting us.”
Hanks was the cornerstone of what would go down as one of the greatest single collections of talent in the secondary in league history, partnering with College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and Pro Bowler Eric Davis at the corners, and in the deep secondary with Strong Safety, and Pro Bowler Tim McDonald.
“For one season, I don’t believe there was a better collection of talent in the secondary in football history,” Hanks said. “I wish we could have stayed together longer. Whenever we are in the same city now, we all get together for a dinner and talk about that. We were great for one season, but if we could have stayed together, we could have truly been dominant.”
As Hanks’ career wound down, he was afforded business opportunities in the Bay Area. It would be one offer in particular that allowed him to move into the administration side of football, where he has remained for over a decade.
“I accepted a position with the League where my title was ultimately the NFL Vice President of Operations,” he said. “My role was to oversee player conduct on the field. I like to think I had a good insight into that, being a former player. I knew what to look forward when someone was trying to bend the rules and maybe took it a little too far. I didn’t have any designs really of being with the League as long as I was, I felt it was ultimately time to step down as I really accomplished what I needed to.”
Hanks is now in the office with Conference USA. This time around, Hanks’ main goal is helping to raise the profile of the conference and assist Commissioner Judy MacLeod in whatever capacity he can. In his new role, Hanks is looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead.
“I’ve got a pretty full plate with everything,” he said. “I’m just really excited about working with Commissioner MacLeod and Conference USA. I think we can do great things in college athletics.”