On the two nights before the Jan. 9, 2012, BCS national championship game, a handful of Alabama players in crimson and gray sweats made their way to room 612 in the New Orleans Marriott. A few brought family members, but most arrived in clusters with teammates. They came in search of an edge.
The room belonged to Christopher Key, who was in town to demonstrate the wares of S.W.A.T.S.—Sports with Alternatives to Steroids—a two-man company run out of the back of a gym near Birmingham. Stocky and genial, with short black hair carefully curled at his forehead, Key began by telling the players that there would be thousands of cellphones in the Superdome the following night and that frequencies from those phones would be swirling through their bodies. "They're going to affect you guys very negatively," Key said rapidly and with a twang. "We figured out a way to manipulate that so that you aren't affected ... [to] give you strength, give you balance, give you flexibility and help with pain."
Key asked 6' 6", 304-pound defensive end Quinton Dial to hold one arm out to his side and to keep the arm up when Key tried to push it down. Dial, who towered over the 5' 8" Key, did so easily. "Now I'm going to do nothing different," Key told the players. "But I'm going to take two fingers, and I'm going to take his cellphone, and I'm going to just put it up against [Dial's] chest." He turned back to Dial. "Take a deep breath, man up to me, O.K.? ... Two fingers, everything you got on three, O.K.? One, two...."
This time, while holding the phone to Dial's chest, Key easily forced the player's arm down to his side. Dial smirked, bemused. "What happened," Key said, "was the frequencies from the phone, as soon as they came into your energy field, they zapped ya, like a Taser."
And then Key passed out his remedy for the frequencies: stickers, which he calls chips, bearing holograms of a pyramid. Key told the players that on game day they should place the chips on three acupuncture points—one on the inside of each wrist before they tape their arms (the chips also come embedded in bracelets), and one over the heart. "It's going to help your heart have so much more energy," he said. "Come the fourth quarter, you guys will not be gassed at all."
Like the star of an infomercial flush with catchphrases—"Guys, this stuff is beyond real!"—Key also showed the players gallon jugs of "negatively charged" water, which he claimed would afford them better hydration because it adheres like a magnet to the body's cells. Then he held up a canister containing a powder additive, to be mixed in water or juice, that he said had put muscle mass on a woman who was in a coma, and an oscillating "beam ray" lightbulb that could "knock out" the swine flu virus in 90 minutes. Finally, he pulled out a bottle of deer-antler spray (which also comes in pill form). Adrian Hubbard, a linebacker sitting on one of the queen beds, said he already had some, but Key explained its benefits for the others.
"You're familiar with HGH, correct?" asked Key, referring to human growth hormone. "It's converted in the liver to IGF-1." IGF-1, or insulinlike growth factor, is a natural, anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth. "We have deer that we harvest out of New Zealand," Key said. "Their antlers are the fastest-growing substance on planet earth ... because of the high concentration of IGF-1. We've been able to freeze-dry that out, extract it, put it in a sublingual spray that you shake for 20 seconds and then spray three [times] under your tongue.... This stuff has been around for almost 1,000 years, this is stuff from the Chinese."
IGF-1 is also a substance banned by the NCAA and by every major pro league. Alleging that the NFL warned players away from S.W.A.T.S.'s spray because it's a threat to "Big Pharma," Key boasted that S.W.A.T.S. is "the most controversial supplement company on Earth."
And so on the eve of facing LSU in the biggest game of their careers, a clutch of Alabama players huddled around Key, an aggressive pitchman who once was arrested for trespassing after giving chips and the beam-ray treatment to an LSU player in his hotel room at the 2010 Senior Bowl. (The charges were dropped, but he was banned from the hotel for life.) Neither Key nor S.W.A.T.S.'s owner, Mitch Ross, an erstwhile male stripper and admitted former steroid dealer, has a college degree in science. No matter. Unbeknownst to Crimson Tide coaches, S.W.A.T.S. had an audience with players on the No. 2 team in college football, a gathering that Key taped with a pen camera and showed to SI. He handed out some of the company's products gratis—"It should never come up, but I'll go to the grave saying you bought this," Key told them—and one, linebacker Alex Watkins, six months later gave a video testimonial on YouTube citing the boost he got from the chips, water and deer-antler pills during Bama's 21--0 BCS title victory.
It was a good night for S.W.A.T.S. in its ongoing quest: to land the sort of high-profile endorsement that could propel a two-man company—even one that has been shunned, shuttered and successfully sued for $5.4 million, as S.W.A.T.S. has—into serious profitability.
Modern science may scoff at holographic stickers and negatively charged water, but that matters little if the right athlete becomes a believer or, better yet, a proselytizer. The boundaries of medical science expand at too glacial a pace for many athletes desperate to enhance their performance. That desperation, in turn, represents a business opportunity for self-ordained sports-science entrepreneurs operating in the shadowy, multibillion-dollar athletic-supplement industry. Key had given some of S.W.A.T.S.'s chips to LSU players before their 9--6 victory over Alabama in November 2011; that helped him get an audience with the Tide players, who received some of the same S.W.A.T.S. products that outfielder Johnny Damon, golfer Vijay Singh and linebacker Shawne Merriman have used. S.W.A.T.S.'s most famous client, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, enters Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday after speaking with Ross in October to request items that would speed his recovery from a torn right triceps.
"Athletes want to win and compete at the highest level and so they are willing to try anything," Key says. "All the athletes in the beginning are, like, 'Look, we don't care what it is. If it works we will use it.'"
S.W.A.T.S. is merely one of the hundreds of entries in the sports-supplement business, a field that is rife with dubious product claims because it is lightly regulated in the U.S. Every company has its own spin, its own narrative and its own method for using big-time sports to create demand. Take Lake Forest, Calif.--based Power Balance, which between 2007 and '10 sold millions of silicone bracelets bearing frequency-programmed holographic stickers that were said to offer "up to a 500% increase in strength, balance and flexibility." (One of the company's founders would use the same cellphone demonstration on potential clients that Key used in New Orleans, a parlor trick that is accomplished with simple leverage.) Power Balance capitalized on the NBA star power of Shaquille O'Neal, who swore by the bracelets, and Lamar Odom, who was given a stake in the company in exchange for his endorsement. They attracted other athletes, including quarterback Drew Brees and outfielder Matt Kemp, and ultimately celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Khloe Kardashian, Odom's wife.
The ubiquity of Power Balance bracelets on sidelines around the world attracted the attention not only of scientists but also of authorities in Australia, where products purporting to offer health and performance benefits are tightly regulated. In December 2010—the same year Power Balance reported gross sales of $35 million—the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission ordered the company to admit that the claims it made about its products "were not supported by any credible scientific evidence" and that it "engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct." After the debunkers came the lawyers, and Power Balance soon faced several class action suits in the U.S. and abroad. In 2011 the Australian and American divisions of Power Balance filed for bankruptcy and the company was sold to a Chinese creditor.
Unlike Power Balance, S.W.A.T.S. doesn't compensate athletes for promoting its products. According to Ross, the company broke even last year, and both he and Key hold down side jobs to make ends meet. S.W.A.T.S. operates out of a low-slung, brown-brick building alongside the Decatur Highway in Fultondale, Ala., neighbor to the One Hundred Oaks mobile-home park and the Funtime roller-skating center. The building, once a motorcycle repair shop, is primarily a gym where Ross, the company's founder, runs his personal training business. What passes for a lab—computers, a water ionizer, beam-ray lights—is in a storage room in the back.
There, a few feet from a Pop-a-Shot game and perched on a shelf in front of a wooden crucifix, are what look like two large, silver Christmas tree ornaments. Between them sit plastic tubs filled with bottles of deer-antler spray. Ross is quick to tell visitors that his spray is no different from that sold by other supplement purveyors and that the hologram chips "are just stickers"—that is, until the spray and the chips are "programmed" with both S.W.A.T.S.'s "performance" light beam and with radio waves emitted by the Christmas ornaments, which are actually radio frequency transmitters.
The theoretical underpinning offered by Key is that radio waves can be stored in fluids (the spray) and in holograms (the chips), and that when an athlete consumes the fluid or wears the holograms, the radio waves are re-emitted and prompt his body to create specific nutrients and hormones—from vitamin B to testosterone. Key says that it's not unlike the way particular wavelengths of sunlight cause the human body to produce vitamin D. In the musty storage room, the holographic stickers and bottles of deer-antler spray are irradiated for 24 straight hours or more in what Ross and Key say is an effort to program them with performance-enhancing frequencies.
The concept springs partly from the work of Royal Raymond Rife, a 1930s American inventor who claimed that he could zap viruses with a contraption that emitted radio waves, akin to the way that a soprano who hits the right vocal frequency can shatter a wine glass. Rife's acolytes—and Key is one—claim that Rife cured 16 terminal cancer patients but that his achievement was scuttled by a conspiracy of the American Medical Association.
In truth there is not a crumb of accepted scientific backing for any of the frequency technology that Rife created; a 1994 American Cancer Society review concluded that radio-wave devices do not have "objective benefit in the treatment of cancer in human beings." And if the technology seems merely a silly sideshow, it can be dangerous, even fatal, to those who rely on it. In the decades since Rife died in 1971, versions of "Rife devices" have contributed to the deaths of cancer patients who relied on them in lieu of chemotherapy. (Key told the Alabama players that he could cure running back Trent Richardson's mother of lupus, and when a diabetic man wandered into S.W.A.T.S. headquarters during SI's visit in October, Key told him that he believed holographic stickers could help treat his blood-sugar problem.)
What about S.W.A.T.S.'s other products? The deer-antler spray does contain IGF-1, though in small quantities, and deer IGF-1 may not even work in humans. No such thing as negatively charged water exists, according to Stephen Lower, an emeritus chemistry professor at Canada's Simon Fraser University who has lectured on the structure of water. The idea that hologram stickers or deer-antler extract will encode radio waves emitted near them defies basic physics. In tests at his lab at the NYU Polytechnic Institute, radio frequency expert and electrical engineering professor Michael Knox showed SI that the hologram chips did not alter the frequencies transmitted by a cellphone at all. (As far as interfering with a cellphone signal, the antistatic bag that the chips came in was more effective than the chips themselves.) Knox also determined that the glue adhesive on the back of the chips acts as an insulator, preventing any transmission between the chips and the skin. His conclusion: "They appear to be just stickers."
Key insists S.W.A.T.S.'s products are cutting edge and is satisfied that they work. "We don't have to prove that this is real or not," he says. "What we're looking for is for [science] to prove that it is not real."
The antechamber at S.W.A.T.S. headquarters is festooned with testimonials from famous athletes, including posters of Damon. Ross met Damon through a friend and flew to Tampa for spring training in 2008, when the outfielder was with the Yankees. Ross says he accompanied a group of players on a hospital visit to meet wounded veterans and gave Damon chips for neck pain. "It is my intention," reads Damon's testimonial poster, "to join you in this crusade and become a member of the S.W.A.T.S. Team, as well as encourage other current and former professional athletes to do the same." (Through his agent, Damon says he is no longer affiliated with S.W.A.T.S. and has asked to be removed from its website.)
Of the S.W.A.T.S. duo, Key, 39, is the self-styled science guy. He grew up in Birmingham down the street from Lynn Kenny, who claimed to have cured his own prostate cancer using a Rife-inspired beam ray, then traveled the world, avowing he could cure cancer and AIDS. (In 2001 the FDA wrote Kenny a warning letter informing him that his beam ray claims constituted a "serious violation of the law.") Even in this realm of outlandish assertions, Key—who once listed Kenny, Rife, Nikola Tesla and Jesus Christ as the people who had done the most for humanity—stands apart. The previous hologram sticker company for which he worked, 8IGHT, let him go for exaggerating the benefits of its products. (Key says he believes he was stating their true benefits.) Shortly after that, in late 2009, he joined S.W.A.T.S.
Key has used athlete testimonials and pictures or videos of himself with sports figures to gain instant credibility with prospective clients. Bill Goldberg, a former NFL defensive lineman and pro wrestler, says he started using the full range of S.W.A.T.S. offerings in spring 2012 after "I went to the website and there were [endorsements from] a couple athletes I already know. I respect them and trust their opinions."
In describing his products to SI (as well as to the Alabama players), Key wasted little time in mentioning David Pascoe, an exercise scientist at Auburn. Key says that Pascoe tested the frequency stickers and was "blown away" by the technology. He also claims that Pascoe, through team doctors, allowed him to treat safety Zac Etheridge's broken neck using the light beam and chips, and his range of motion almost completely returned. (Pascoe's recollection is different. He says he met Key, but he never tested frequency stickers or steered him to an injured athlete; Etheridge also denies being treated by Key. At one point Pascoe considered retaining a lawyer if Key did not stop using his name as part of S.W.A.T.S.'s advertising pitch. "I just taught a class on myth busters," says Pascoe. "I don't want anybody thinking I backed this.")
The 45-year-old Ross drives a Suburban that is essentially a rolling S.W.A.T.S. billboard. He considers the compilation of testimonials to constitute quintessential scientific proof. "Another company can say their holograms do what ours do, but where are their testimonials?" he asks between squirts of deer antler. "Elite athletes know their bodies.... You give [our products] to a kick-ass running back, and after he has 200 yards, he says, 'My cuts were great.'"
Ross has been a supreme salesman since he was a child in Atlanta. For a fourth-grade candy sale he told his mother to drop him off at Kmart and leave him there, alone. He spent the day approaching strangers and won a skateboard as the top seller. ("I learned to be outgoing and not afraid to ask," Ross says.) When Ross's mother ordered him to move out as soon as he graduated from high school—he is dyslexic, and struggled at school and at home—Ross relocated to Douglasville, Ga. He started lifting weights every day and, he says, dabbled in steroids.
Between 18 and 20, Ross lived in dozens of places and held as many jobs, including as a salesman at the Gap, a pool cleaner and a male stripper, before settling into personal training at a Bally's in Atlanta. He says he was so successful that he started managing gyms. "I am 21 with 30 employees under me," he says. "At the same time, I am smoking dope, screwing everything, kid on the way. I am a loser." Ross, who has become intensely health-conscious, says he stopped doing steroids himself—he didn't like how the older users looked—but started selling steroids that a friend stole from a pharmaceutical warehouse. In 1998, Ross found Christ. And soon, he found frequencies. A powerlifter friend gave him a frequency patch, and "it put 10 reps on my 225-pound bench," Ross says. "That was all I needed to know."
Convinced that he had a performance enhancer, Ross pounded the pavement. In 2008, he staked out the Alabama football facility, waiting to give players hologram stickers. "Remember Jimmy Johns selling cocaine in the [Alabama] parking lot?" Ross says of the former Tide linebacker. "I was doing the same thing but giving them chips for free."
Also that year, Ross booked a hotel room for the weekend of the NFL combine, right next to Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium. He had begun to build his clientele in '07 with a few NFL players, whom he knew through a Miami trainer. "I could drop their names [at the combine]," Ross says. "It's all about name-dropping, man." In his everyday attire of a sleeveless shirt—his own musculature is part of the advertising—Ross sauntered into the combine and started making friends. He gave out his card, he says, to "probably 100 people." Browns running back Jamal Lewis was about to do a TV interview when Ross tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, you want to improve your performance?" Ross asked. "Take my card." And then he walked away as Lewis began the interview.
His pitch to Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson was more in-depth. Ross name-dropped college teams and then performed the cellphone/balance test. "Jamal and Coach Jackson followed up, and that's all it took," Ross says. "[Lewis] went through about 40 bottles of the [deer-antler] spray." (Lewis said, "I didn't use any spray or anything like that" through a spokesman for the Ravens, with whom he started his career.)
Ross says Jackson invited him to organized team activities at the Ravens' facility, where Ross handed out chips to players. The 2008 season was a turnaround year for Baltimore and, according to Ross, Jackson was soon calling him for more products. (Jackson did not return a message from SI asking about S.W.A.T.S.)
In 2010, after Jackson was hired as coach of the Raiders, Ross met him in a Nashville restaurant on the eve of the opener against the Titans to videotape a testimonial. In the interview, which Ross put on YouTube, they discuss what would happen if Jackson failed to provide Ravens with the stickers. "Guys would be pissed off," Jackson says. "Ya know, 'Coach didn't put our chips in the locker.'"
Jackson brought S.W.A.T.S. products with him to Oakland. "Our players swear by them," he says in the video. "You can't have anything in this league that is considered a PDA [sic].... I think anything that can help your athlete perform legally better, I think everybody's for it."
Linebacker Gary Stills was a Raven when he started using the deer-antler spray, according to court documents. When he moved to the Rams in 2008, he shared a bottle with linebacker David Vobora, the final pick of the '08 draft—that year's Mr. Irrelevant. Vobora soon gave a lie to that label, earning a starting job in St. Louis.
In June 2009, Vobora failed an off-season test for the steroid methyltestosterone and was suspended for four games. He then had the bottle of S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler spray (retail price: $64) tested. According to court documents filed by one of Vobora's lawyers, it tested positive for methyltestosterone. Vobora's lawyers sent a letter to Ross offering to not file a lawsuit if Ross paid Vobora $1 million. (One of Vobora's lawyers later claimed that Vobora only wanted an apology and for the spray to be removed from the market.)
When Ross did not reply, Vobora sued S.W.A.T.S. in May '10, alleging a lack of quality control that allowed the spray bottle to be contaminated. (The S.W.A.T.S. spray is manufactured by a third party and—as is customary in the sports-supplement industry—simply branded as unique with a S.W.A.T.S. label.) When Ross declined to hire a lawyer to represent S.W.A.T.S., Vobora, without a trial, was granted a default victory and a $5.4 million award. "Today, I've been proven innocent," Vobora said on June 20, 2011. Ross shuttered his business and reopened six months later under a different corporate name, a strategy he hopes will forestall collection.
Before the lawsuit, the S.W.A.T.S. website displayed testimonials from two dozen NFL players. The chips and spray also had recently begun to spread through golf after a friend with whom Ross sold Christmas trees introduced him to a PGA caddie. In short order, Ross says, the caddie "was passing me around the golf world like a prostitute." As soon as the Vobora verdict landed, though, the NFL, the PGA and MLB sent notice to athletes that the S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler spray—which had been advertised as containing the banned IGF-1, an ingredient common to all brands of deer-antler spray—had been implicated in a positive drug test. Ross's cellphone buzzed once more with calls from athletes asking to have their names removed from the S.W.A.T.S. website. (It had buzzed also back in January 2011 after Jackson was ordered by the NFL, which prohibits coaches from having relationships with supplement companies, to cut ties with S.W.A.T.S.) Overnight, the tiny company that marketed itself as a legal alternative to steroids and that depended on player testimonials became as untouchable for pro athletes as an electric fence.
(Vijay Singh, however, remains a vocal supporter. In November, Singh paid Ross $9,000 for the spray, chips, beam ray and powder additive—making him one of the few athletes who is compensating S.W.A.T.S. He says he uses the spray banned by the PGA "every couple of hours ... every day," sleeps with the beam ray on and has put chips on his ankles, waist and shoulders. "I'm looking forward to some change in my body," Singh says. "It's really hard to feel the difference if you're only doing it for a couple of months.")
Ross and Key went from filming testimonials with athletes and coaches to clandestinely videotaping their interactions. In a phone call six months after the Vobora verdict, Jackson told Ross that he was sending Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour his way. (Through a Raiders spokesman, Seymour declined to speak to SI.) "I said [to Seymour], 'Hey, look, you gotta talk to Mitch,'" Jackson said in the call. " 'I can direct you, but I can't be involved in it.'"
In another secretly taped call placed by Ross, Seymour says he hasn't "heard a lot" about S.W.A.T.S.'s legal problems. He then told Ross, "I'm really looking for some cutting-edge stuff that obviously is all legal that would get me at least playing at a high level for another two years in terms of my body."
"You need to recover faster," Ross replied.
"Yeah," Seymour said, "I need to recover faster."
Ross, who insists that in two days his holograms can repair sprained ankles that normally take a month to heal, then discussed a regimen of chips, spray and negatively charged water.
The Internet ensures that S.W.A.T.S. cannot hide from the Vobora lawsuit. Which is fine by Key and Ross. They welcome the chance to market themselves as subversive. Even during the lawsuit, Vobora's lawyer Dan Fleck said, "They looked at the situation as free advertising for their product."
Likewise, the company embraces the admonishments it receives from athletic departments; they're evidence of interaction with major-college football teams. "Cease and desist use of all references to Auburn's football team," reads a letter from that school's compliance director. "Refrain from using the institution or its athletes in discussion of your product," reads one from LSU. (When asked for a comment on their players' interactions with Key and Ross, Alabama officials said, "We've sent them two cease and desist letters, and we are constantly educating our guys on performance-enhancing substances.")
Another piece of S.W.A.T.S.'s post-Vobora marketing strategy confronts football's grand bugbear: brain trauma. Ross is so sure that he can reduce brain damage in the sport that he plans to start a local nine-to-12-year-old tackle football league, which would include his son, and give the players "concussion caps"—beanies that they wear under their helmets and that are doused in a menthol-smelling, skin-tingling liquid that he says has been "programmed" with anti-brain-inflammation frequencies. Ross has already had success among former NFLers in hawking the brain-enhancing and repairing qualities of his frequency-programmed wares, once gaining customers by giving out free chips at the Dallas gathering of a chapter of the NFL Retired Players Association.
Joe DeLamielleure, a Hall of Fame Bills offensive lineman and plaintiff in a brain injury lawsuit against the NFL, uses S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler pills and deer-antler spray. DeLamielleure, who was suffering from sleeping difficulties and significant hearing loss, read about Junior Seau's sleeping problems after the linebacker killed himself last May and sought a remedy for his own sleep deprivation. "I still can't hear, but I sleep like a baby," DeLamielleure says. "It works, but my kids call me Mr. Placebo. Maybe it's me, I want things to work so bad.... My wife says pretty soon deer antlers will grow out of my head."
DeLamielleure has met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to talk about brain-injury treatment, and Ross has been urging DeLamielleure to set up a meeting so that Ross can present his concussion remedy. "Mitch wants me to walk in with deer-antler velvet," DeLamielleure says. "I can't. There's no science behind it.... Mitch keeps saying, 'Take me to Goodell.' [I will] as soon as he gets a doctor to say this is what they claim it is."
Heath Evans, an NFL Network analyst and longtime fullback who had three documented concussions, uses the deer-antler spray and pills daily. Evans is an Auburn alum and learned of S.W.A.T.S. through Tigers players. "The tabs are where I've noticed the cognitive ability, the sharpness, ability to recall," he says. "The spray I think has some good muscular things, I think some sexual sides to that as well." He does not "believe" in the chips, he says, but adds, "There are a lot of players who have put them on and run a faster 40 [yard dash] and benched more than they've ever benched before."
Key says that just before Zac Etheridge's NFL testing day in 2011, he gave chips to Etheridge in Florida. (Etheridge, now an assistant coach at Penn State, confirms that he has used the chip-embedded bracelets.) The Auburn safety wore one on his Pro Day, when he ran the 40 in 4.63; his previous best was 4.4. He also benched 225 pounds 14 times; he had done 15 reps before. Etheridge's results didn't make it into the S.W.A.T.S. marketing pitch.
At the '09 combine Ross says he showed the agent for Shawne Merriman text messages from NFL players to prove that they were using his products. According to a phone conversation that Ross recorded and posted online, Merriman used the deer-antler spray and deer-antler pills in 2011 while he was rehabbing from a torn right Achilles tendon. When Ross asked the Bills linebacker if he would tell Goodell that S.W.A.T.S. aided his rehab, Merriman responded, "I can't sit up here and say I'll give him a straight up answer.... They're saying please take your stuff out of locker rooms, I'm not going to stand up against the whole NFL.... I'm not in that position right now." Merriman had previously drawn unwanted attention for a positive steroid test in '06—he blamed it on a tainted supplement—and noted in the call that he did not want to attract the league's scrutiny. "I can't have them all in my Twitter," he said. (Merriman acknowledged to SI knowing Ross, then ended the interview, promising to call back. He did not.)
It was yet another frustrating setback for Key and Ross, who need an athlete willing to admit the use of a product with a banned substance by a league whose commissioner is known for avidly enforcing the rules. The athlete, like the S.W.A.T.S. duo, must be a true believer, and prominent enough to command national attention.
Hours after he tore his triceps during an Oct. 14 home game against the Cowboys, Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis and Ross connected on the phone. Again, Ross videotaped the call.
"It's bottom, near the elbow," Lewis said of the tear. After asking a few pseudo-diagnostic questions, Ross concluded, "All right, well this is going to be simple.... How many pain chips you got around the house?"
"I got plenty of them," Lewis replied.
Ross prescribed a deluxe program, including holographic stickers on the right elbow; copious quantities of the powder additive; sleeping in front of a beam-ray light programmed with frequencies for tissue regeneration and pain relief; drinking negatively charged water; a 10-per-day regimen of the deer-antler pills that will "rebuild your brain via your small intestines" (and which Lewis said he hadn't been taking, then swallowed four during the conversation); and spritzes of deer-antler velvet extract (the Ultimate Spray) every two hours.
"Spray on my elbow every two hours?" Lewis asked.
"No," Ross said, "under your tongue."
Toward the end of the talk, Lewis asked Ross to "just pile me up and just send me everything you got, because I got to get back on this this week."
Ross says he provided the products free of charge. He even trotted out a novel S.W.A.T.S. technology for the star client: undergarments—black with Lewis's name and number in purple—drenched in pungent menthol liquid that Key and Ross exposed to radio waves. All Ross wanted in return, he told Lewis, is for the future Hall of Famer to tell the truth—that he used S.W.A.T.S. products—when he returned to the field.
On Dec. 5, Lewis practiced for the first time. He did not play in the final regular-season games, but remained a boisterous sideline presence and joined the jubilant locker room celebration after Baltimore routed the Giants 33--14 on Dec. 23 to win the AFC North.
Lewis had not talked to media for 10 weeks while he rehabbed his injury. Asked by SI if he had worked with Key and Ross during his recovery, he initially demurred. "I didn't work with them personally this time," he said.
When pressed, Lewis said, "Nobody helped me out with the rehab. I've been doing S.W.A.T.S. for a couple years through Hue Jackson, that's it. That's my only connection to them."
Asked if he had talked to Ross the night of his injury, Lewis replied, "I told him to send me some more of the regular stuff, the S.W.A.T.S., the stickers or whatever."
And did they help?
"I think a lot of things helped me."
So would he suggest S.W.A.T.S. to other players?
"If I did, I would've done said it by now," Lewis said. Asked specifically about the spray and the pills, Lewis walked away without comment.
It was not quite the resounding endorsement that Ross had prophesied. "I have the growth hormone alternative, the healing alternative," he says. "And it's sitting right here, in Fultondale, Alabama."
So the quest goes on for the tipping-point testimonial that could turn S.W.A.T.S. into the next big thing in sports. As desperately as athletes want a competitive edge, they're left to ponder the legitimacy of products that Key, Ross and skeptical scientists all might describe in the same five words: This stuff is beyond real.
THE BOUNDARIES OF MEDICAL SCIENCE EXPAND AT TOO GLACIAL A PACE FOR ATHLETES DESPERATE TO ENHANCE PERFORMANCE.
IF THE FREQUENCY TECHNOLOGY SEEMS A SILLY SIDESHOW, IT CAN BE DANGEROUS, EVEN FATAL, TO THOSE WHO RELY ON IT.
S.W.A.T.S. EMBRACES ADMONISHMENTS FROM COLLEGE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENTS AS EVIDENCE OF INTERACTION WITH TOP TEAMS.
ROSS TROTTED OUT NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR LEWIS: UNDERGARMENTS DRENCHED IN MENTHOL LIQUID AND EXPOSED TO RADIO WAVES.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY A. SALTER
A PLACEBO FOR EVERYTHING Singh (above) paid $9,000 for the full S.W.A.T.S. protocol, including deer-antler spray; Damon used the holographic stickers; Lewis (52) wanted products to help him recover from a torn triceps; and former Alabama linebacker Watkins (91) was such a satisfied customer he made a video testimonial.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING (OPENER)
[See caption above]
JOHN BIEVER (SINGH, LEWIS)
[See caption above]
AL TIELEMANS (DAMON)
[See caption above]
MARK ALMOND/BIRMINGHAM NEWS/LANDOV (WATKINS)
[See caption above]
RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES (MERRIMAN)
WAVE RUNNERS The S.W.A.T.S. team of Ross (right, in gray) and Key couldn't get an endorsement out of Merriman (56), while the NFL demanded that Jackson cut ties to the company.
PETER READ MILLER (JACKSON)
[See caption above]
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY A. SALTER
[See caption above]
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY A. SALTER
BOSS ROSS A gym owner and former stripper, Ross has tried to build the company by handing out goods and dropping names of famous customers.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
IRRELEVANT? HARDLY Taken last in the 2008 draft, Vobora sued S.W.A.T.S. for lack of quality control after testing positive—and was granted a $5.4 million award.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY A. SALTER
BUYER BEWARE Key, who does personal training on the side to make ends meet, believes in S.W.A.T.S.'s technology and says that it's up to science to disprove it.