"You're on the phone with someone who could change the history of sports," said Deer Antler Man.
He was back. It had been two long years.
"I have two questions for you," Deer Antler Man said, before asking me three questions. "First, you saw the Sports Illustrated story on me? You want to do something more on that? Second, can you get me in touch with Oprah?"
Yes, I said. Probably, I said. And yes, of course!
With that, Deer Antler Man, also known as Mitch Ross, owner of Sports With Alternatives To Steroids (S.W.A.T.S.), a fly-by-night supplement company linked to Ray Lewis's right triceps, began talking rapidly, the Georgia in his voice twanging like a mad banjo.
"I've got the NFL's concussion problem solved," he said. "I've got technology that can reverse the symptoms of ALS. I have a doctor willing to go on Oprah with me. I have Bill Goldberg."
I'd heard this sort of patter before. Toward the end of 2010, I was working on a doomed assignment about Brett Favre for New York Magazine when Ross and I crossed paths (more on that later). But he sounded different now. Amped. Uneasy. Life had never been easy for him, of course, but now it had taken a bad turn. Deer Antler Man was mad.
He had a bone to pick with SI, which had recently published a well-wrought, if weirdly earnest, debunking of S.W.A.T.S.'s two main products: holographic stickers designed to boost athletic performance and a mysterious sublingual spray imbued with antler velvet savaged from New Zealand red deer at the "perfect time," according to Ross, "when the antler tip is at full blood flow and all the nutrients used to make the antler grow are forced into the tip." SI's story was thorough, almost comically so. Reading it was like reading a vigorous takedown of lucky trolls in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Ross didn't dwell on the stickers. At issue for him was the spray, which goes under the tongue and supposedly contains small amounts of IGF-1, a naturally occurring hormone in deer antler velvet that also occurs on the NFL's banned substance list. Sports Illustrated tested the spray but chose not to reveal the results or mention the test in its story "for legal purposes," according to one source at the magazine, who refused to elaborate.
What did make the story was an allegation that Lewis had used the spray for his injured triceps. This wasn't altogether news. In 2011, Yahoo had tied Lewis to S.W.A.T.S. in workmanlike Yahoo fashion. But the feat didn't result in the same kind of attention. "Do you think they didn't read our story?" one wounded Yahoo editor wondered aloud about SI, as the magazine's "exclusive" began to go viral.
It wasn't that. Even dusty football rumors trigger reflexive media humping a week before the Super Bowl. And SI had dropped some PED-fragranced scuttlebutt about the game's most compelling character right before his final appearance as a player. A brief national freakout ensued. News tickers blared about Lewis possibly using a banned substance, despite SI being clear that the spray might do nothing more than give you bad breath. One SI staffer had to shut down his email because he got so many evil notes from locos in Baltimore. Even my parents asked me whether Lewis was "on the juice." A "hanging of Ray Lewis," Ross called it.
He was far more upset, however, about how the freakout made his spray look. SI's unpublished test results, he said, might've validated the product. The spray, he said, helps with Lou Gehrig's disease and diabetes. It reverses post-concussion symptoms. Ross emailed me a press release to substantiate his claims, pointing out that people in China have been gobbling velvet from the bones of ruminant mammals for 2,000 years. Well, people in China also snort powdered rhino keratin because they think it makes their dicks hard. But Ross was a true believer. Now he looked like a charlatan.
"They catfished me, bro," he said. "They made me look like an idiot."
I felt bad for him. With his sleeveless wardrobe and his carnival-midway hucksterism, Ross was always fated to be the punch line of any story (even this one). Did he deserve better? Leading up to the SI feature, the story of his life certainly hadn't been very funny. He was adopted out of the womb—"bought" for $30,000, he told me—by a rich couple in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. His adopted father died when he was 3, leaving Ross in the charge of his mother, who moved Ross and his adopted siblings to a mansion in the Georgia countryside. Ross grew up fishing in a nearby river and playing in the woods. He rarely saw his mother, who never worked and lived a distant life in the mansion, draped in furs and jewelry. Ross hitchhiked to his own football and baseball games. He was an excellent athlete but a terrible student, relegated to enough special-ed classes thanks to his dyslexia that his friends took to calling him Special Eddie. When he turned 18 the day after graduating high school, his mother kicked him out of the house.
"I guess she'd had enough," Ross said. "I don't know if she wanted to adopt a boy or not. I was wild as a buck, just a different breed. She had rings and furs and Mark IVs. That's what she loved. There was no love in my life. But she made me part of who I am."
So did the next step in his journey. Bouncing from one address to the next, Ross did whatever he could to make money. When he was 20, he worked as a stripper in Atlanta for a year. He was the only white member of an all-black revue. He'd gotten into fitness and bodybuilding as a teenager and went to work running gyms and karate schools. He did personal training. In 1998, he found religion. He gave up drugs, or at least certain drugs—steroids, weed, alcohol. Then he learned about a certain sublingual spray. He began spreading the deer-antler gospel. All the hard knocks had not been in vain. Ross had learned to fend for himself, to talk to anyone. He knew how to hustle. Within a few years, Deer Antler Man was hanging out with some of the best athletes in the world, getting them to try his weird product.
And then came the SI story. Unflattering though it may have been, it had given Ross a new platform, and S.W.A.T.S. sales were up. Ross wanted to milk the publicity. Two days before the Super Bowl, he called a press conference outside the New Orleans convention center. Dozens of reporters showed up. They mocked Ross openly, especially when he began talking about a "second brain" in the human gut, a concept with plenty of scientific support. But columns about brains and guts and lunatics raving through the streets make for good yucks when you have to get something up on deadline. Ross returned to Alabama hurt and bewildered. Then he called me.
"Do all journalists act like this?" he said.
Not all. Just most.
"You were the guy who could have broke this story with Brett Favre," he reminded me.
That's partly why this deer antler derangement so annoyed me. I'd first spoken to Ross at the end of 2010 while working on my ill-fated Favre story, which never came to pass. I'd heard the gunslinger might have used deer-antler spray to stave off decrepitude. So I called Ross. He told me he'd been in touch with Favre and sent him S.W.A.T.S. stickers and spray. Favre's close friend, J.D. Simpson, confirmed it.
But did Favre actually use the spray? Ross snorted at my skepticism: "Maybe they get Deer Antler Man's stuff and just pile it up in the corner to look at?"
The proof, he said, was in Favre's performance that year: over 4,000 yards passing, 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
"That was the best season he had," Ross said. "It was the best season of his career! You gotta put that in there, bro."
So Favre may or may not have used a spray that may or may not contain a banned substance that may or may not work. Should that matter, even if Favre were still playing? Same goes for Ray Lewis, whom Ross also told me about in 2010. Ross told me about a lot of athletes.
"I've probably got 30 text messages from Carlos Peña about using the spray," he said at the time.
But the real story here was never about Peña or Lewis or Favre. It was about Deer Antler Man. Oh, people mocked him, sure, but here was the true soul of sports doping—a guy peddling Daffy's Elixir from beyond the fringes of science, a sharper whose genius was being his own best mark. For as long as there have been organized sports, there have been Deer Antler Men, smiling and hoofing their way into an athlete's insecurities and superstitions. Ross isn't going to change the history of sports. He is the history of sports.
"I don't give a rat's ass what the doctors say," he told me. "I'll win in the end."
We spoke again a day later. He wanted to know when this story would run. He wanted to show it to nonbelievers, to prove the Favre connection. "I'm going to have somebody write a book about this one day," he grumbled. He had one last question for me: "Do you have any way to get in touch with Don Imus?"
Luke O'Brien is a Deadspin contributor and a former staff writer. He writes for other places, too.
Image by Jim Cooke