This story appears in the Feb. 4, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
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 -insulin-like 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 cell-phone 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.