Sports Illustrated's report that Ray Lewis ordered deer antler velvet spray to recover from injuries has easily been the funniest sub-plot of this year's pre-Super Bowl media feeding frenzy, but ask some hunters about it and they'll tell you the idea of wild-animal performance enhancement isn't the craziest notion. He's just got the wrong part of the deer.
"I don't know about this deer antler stuff," says Shane Clifford, a former professional bull rider who's been living and hunting in the Badlands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota since he was a kid. "But there's nothing like some fresh venison for your body. I've gone out hunting to get a fresh antelope or deer to eat right before a rodeo and that lean, wild meat really makes a difference."
Clifford is a member of the Oglala band of the Lakota tribe, who, before the arrival of Black Hills gold miners and the U.S. Cavalry, roamed the Great Plains living off of buffalo. It was traditional after a buffalo kill for the children to snack on the liver, and it's still a delicacy in Pine Ridge.
I'm a white guy from Massachusetts and didn't grow up hunting. The first time I shot a deer was on Pine Ridge a few years ago. My hunting buddies told me I needed to eat a fresh piece of the liver to give me the energy to take care of the butchering after the adrenaline of the hunt wore off. I thought it was an old joke to mess with the city-slicker greenhorn until they started slicing off hunks of the innards for themselves. That led to a round of jokes about avoiding any "wild women" later that night — deer liver is also apparently a well-known form of "Redneck Viagra" in certain circles.
Over at Black Hills Archery in nearby Rapid City, asking people if fresh game will put some pep in your step is like asking if water's wet.
"I don't even keep any store-bought meat in the freezer at home," says store owner Al Krause. "When you eat a buffalo steak or elk, it's like a eating a fresh salad. You feel so good afterwards. And you're getting more protein than a bacon double-cheeseburger, without any of the grease."
Says Jack Holthaus, a longtime hunter who runs a nonprofit group called Bring Back The Bow that teaches bow making and archery to kids on the reservation: "Before deer hunting season comes antelope season, and I've always said that eating antelope meat makes me fleet as an antelope for deer season. It's a joke, of course, but there's truth to it. A nice antelope steak for breakfast and a couple of sandwiches for the road will keep you running around after deer all day long."
Deer jerky is the super-food of choice for hunter and food writer Chris Eberhart of BowHuntingWildFood. "I try to get a couple of does early in the season and make them into jerky," says Eberhart, who grew up on a farm in Michigan eating mostly game. "Most of the weight is gone when you dry it, so that's just pure lean protein and energy."
There's something to the hunting wisdom, says professor Loren Cordain of Colorado State University, author of The Paleo Diet. "It's been proven that wild game and grass-fed meat is much better for your health and for muscle recovery than store-bought meat." As for Ray Lewis, though: "Even if this deer antler spray that everyone is talking about does have IGF-1," a growth hormone banned by the NFL, "I don't know if you could get it into your bloodstream orally. Hormones generally need to be injected, like with insulin," says Cordain.
Wild meat like venison and elk can have almost twice as much protein as a fatty, corn-fed beef steak, says Cordain, and that protein is filled with "branch-chain" amino acids, which help your muscles recover after a tough workout or an injury. And Cordain has some anecdotes of his own.
"My wife and I started adopting what's now called the Paleo Diet, but at the time didn't really have a name, around 1990. Laurie was a triathlete at the time and her times started to dramatically improve. I was a lifeguard during the summers at the time and I noticed that my muscle mass increased without any change in my workout routine. My times in the running, swimming and paddling we did dramatically improved, to where I won the nationals in the two-mile beach run for my [over 40] age division."
Professional athletes and teams spend untold sums on nutritionists, trainers, and doctors of every stripe. They live by scientific napping schedules, cool off in sub-Arctic cryotherapy chambers and apparently risk their careers and reputations by taking dubious antler derivatives. Maybe they should ditch the spray and the strange chemical compounds, track down a deer, and have their personal chefs prepare Chris Eberhart's recipe for venison tenderloin with asparagus and morels. They might get accused of being a hipster foodie gourmand, but no one will call them a cheater.
Not that there aren't potential health downsides to what writer, hunter, and television hunting host Steven Rinella calls "the wild game lifestyle": "Last year I spent four days in a hospital after I got hurt hunting," he says. "Some of the places I hunt, in remote areas, avalanche territory, that's a lot more dangerous than eating a bag of Doritos."
Rinella adds: "But there's no doubt eating fresh game is better for you. How much of that could be scientifically proven and how much of it is psychosomatic, I couldn't say, but it makes you feel stronger, gives you endurance. The healthiest thing would probably be to steer clear of the guns, and just hire someone else to go out and do all that hunting for you."