Every so often he will mangle the name of a player or struggle to identify a formation, but that's O.K. Barry Switzer is a delegator, a big-picture guy. Still, you would have thought that by Sunday evening the Cowboy coach would have learned the name of the 49er who had all but single-handedly denied Dallas the right to proclaim itself the NFL's best team. Explaining that two of Troy Aikman's three interceptions were not Aikman's fault, Switzer said, "There was only one legitimate one. Thirty-six got it."
That would be Niner free safety Merton Hanks, whose Q rating before Sunday was as insubstantial as his disconcerting pencil neck. Playing in the secondary with Deion Sanders tends to ensure one's anonymity, but after Hanks's performance against the Cowboys—four tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions—Sanders declared, "If he isn't a Pro Bowler, something's wrong with the system."
Hanks has not always worked the system to his advantage. An All-America cornerback at Iowa, he watched his stock plummet at the 1991 scouting combine. "I ran a terrible 40—a high 4.6," he says. By snagging him in the fifth round, the 49ers got the bargain of the century—according to Hanks, anyway. "I felt like they got a first-or second-round pick in the fifth round," he says. A part-time starter at cornerback for two seasons, he replaced Dana Hall at free safety last year when Hall went down with a sprained ankle in the third game of the season. It immediately became apparent that Hanks was the better free safety.
When Sanders joined the 49ers in September, Hanks, who had been shifted back to the corner, moved permanently to safety. "My goal this year is the Pro Bowl," says Hanks. "I felt I should've made it last year."
Cocky? Well, you would have to be to set your sights on a woman three inches taller than you. As a freshman at Iowa, Hanks was smitten by 6'5" Marva Fuller, a star on the Hawkeye women's basketball team. They have been married for six years and have two daughters, the older of whom is named Maya Angelou Hanks.
"Each new hour holds new chances," intoned the poet for whom Hanks's daughter is named as she recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton's inauguration. With Dallas driving for the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter on Sunday, Hanks, covering wideout Alvin Harper, deflected the ball upward, saw Harper bat it, and then gathered it in at last at the one-yard line.
Still, the clutch play of Hanks's career awaited. With 6:30 left to play, the Cowboys trailed 14-7, with a second-and-goal on the Niner seven. Hanks's assignment was to cover Emmitt Smith coming out of the backfield. But Hanks would say later, "Emmitt stayed in to block. I just drifted to my left and read Troy's eyes."
So pick number 2 was easy. Told later that Switzer knew his number but not his name, thirty-six smiled and said, "He'll know it by tomorrow."
Hanks (right) is not about to let himself be outshone by Neon Deion.