Merton Hanks is widely known for big plays during his nine-season career in the NFL, but his big heart is what has driven him from his beginnings in Dallas to his executive career today. Merton’s work ethic and faith have kept him grounded through a career that started with a dream and still continues with passion.

Merton hails from Dallas, Texas, where he grew up as the youngest of six siblings. Merton learned early on the value of hard work and contributed to supporting his household from a young age even while dreaming of something bigger. That something bigger came in the form of a fifth-round NFL draft pick to play for the San Francisco 49ers in 1991, catapulting him and his family into the world of professional sports.

Merton met Marva, the woman he describes as “the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my life, especially on the inside,” while in college at the University of Iowa. Merton and Marva were married at ages of 20 and 22 during the busy, feverish days of sports and college. Not long after he was drafted by the 49ers, he and Marva became parents and started raising two young daughters, Maya and Milan.

Merton’s NFL career took off, and soon, he’d garnered an extensive list of accomplishments, including four Pro Bowl appearances, three All-Pro team selections, and a Super Bowl ring. On the field, he projected confidence, entertaining fans with his explosive returns and interceptions and celebrating with his signature “chicken dance.” He’d come a long way since sweeping streets in Dallas.

But off the field, Merton’s family life was paying the price of a full-tilt NFL career. With his long absences and the pressures of a pro-sports life, Merton’s marriage was suffering. He and Marva turned to their faith and to trusted mentors who pushed them to find balance. Merton made decisions that too few pro-football players do, choosing to plan for the future while enmeshed in the extravagance and excitement of a high-profile sports life. With prayer and hard work, the Hanks weathered some hard years and came through them stronger for it.

After his retirement as a player, Merton began a vibrant speaking career and served multiple roles on radio and television programs. Merton went on to complete the Sport Administration master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business Executive Education. Merton later took a position as Vice President of Football Operations and Consumer Products for the NFL and was promoted in 2011 to Vice President of Football Operations and Compliance, a job some describe as the hardest in the NFL. Merton’s efforts in reviewing plays and issuing fines for on-field misconduct made the game safer. Today, he serves as a Senior Associate Commissioner for Conference USA, handling all football and baseball operations for the conference, as well as public affairs and community relations.