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.