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December 19, 2012

Fight On for right food




You don't have to tell Becci Twombley how teams have used USC's food program for athletes as a part of their negative recruiting against the Trojans.

USC's new sports dietician is well aware of it.

"We did it at UCLA," says Twombley, a former Pepperdine volleyball player who worked for the Bruins until this past summer when USC hired her away with the opening of the McKay Center that for starters needed someone to oversee, among other things, the new athletes' "Fueling Station."

"I'm on the field with you guys," Twombley said she would tell her Bruin athletes. Across town, "they don't have anybody."

And they didn't. Lots of programs still don't.

"The problem is there are more jobs available than qualified people to fill them," says Twombley, who when she was hired at UCLA was the nation's 23rd certified college sports dietician. That's the official name says Twombley, the national secretary for the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA).

When she arrived at USC six years later, there were just 51. Now there are 56. But that's not enough. Nor are Twombley and USC's part-time nutritionist Kristy Morrell enough to handle all the duties of a big-time program with 21 sports teams.

"There aren't enough hours in the day," Twombley says for the way the strength and conditioning people along with the trainers and medical staff have to all come together here to get all the input, much less the food, to come together from early in the morning until late in the day when the football team is headed back from a night football game on the road.

And Twombley is there handing out the post-game meals, Chipotle if she can get it on the road. "They use all fresh ingredients," she says.

And yes, she knows how Notre Dame had the In 'n Out Burger truck at the top of the tunnel serving the Irish after the game. That's probably not in the Trojans' future. But this is.

"We're looking to hire a chef," Twombley says in what would be another step ahead for a USC program playing catch-up here. But it's a sign, she says, of how fast the Trojans are moving. There is a commitment here, she says. From both Lane Kiffin and Pat Haden.

"Coach Kiffin has placed a high priority on nutrition," Twombley says. "He's a huge advocate for it. It's one of his great strengths."

And since the sports dieticians are a small and close group, Twombley says USC has made up ground so quickly that she'd rank "only two other schools, Alabama and Oregon . . . ahead of us right now . . . Alabama is already there. We're on the way."

But it's been a bit of an adjustment to healthier foods, to meals that offer recovery opportunities not empty calories. Twombley said she realized that at UCLA when Norm Chow came looking for her to complain because "he wanted pizza and wings," food the players got when he was at USC.

Not happening, Norm. "I was not [feeding them pizza and wings]," Twombley says. "It was not appropriate. My job is to take the scientific data and turn it into food. In some cases, that's grilled chicken and vegetables."

But when she recently threw a barbecue/cookout for the athletes, it featured burgers made with "lean grass-fed beef. They really liked them."

This is as much an educational challenge as it is one of management and science, for Twombley, who is at "all the meals." Her presence can be felt in another way. Twombley is a dogged tweeter with food tips for athletes although she knows that's only for a select group of her nearly 500 followers.

"The coaches have to help us here," she says. "And Lane has been very good about it. He understands. And budget is not an issue. The coaches control it."

Now Twombley is looking at this in the long-run, the way USC is set to be able to adjust and adapt going forward while other programs with bigger reps, like Florida, for example, are losing their sports dieticians for organizational and bureaucratic reasons.

"We're ahead of Florida now," she says.

But if there are major issues facing sports dieticians, and schools like USC, they come from other places -- like the NCAA, which limits athletes to one meal a day in season. And limits strictly what programs can offer in the early snacks they put out for the players before meetings and practice.

At USC, the Compliance Department is on the job auditing the spread for "illegal" foods.

"Illegal" foods? Like what? How could a food be "illegal"?

In the NCAA's mind, an "illegal" food is one, Twombley says, "that's over 30 percent protein." Which is why Muscle Milk makes a 29 percent protein "collegiate" brand not available to the public.

"And how did they come up with that 30 percent?" Twombley anticipates your question? Where? Out of thin air, apparently. "Out of nowhere," she says with a shake of the head. Nor was anyone asked. At least not anyone who knew or cared about daily diets for athletes.

So no yogurt, beef jerky or peanut butter, unless you take the peanuts set out and put them through the $2,500 NCAA-approved peanut butter processor. Then it's OK.

There's another issue. Twombley said. "Omega 3 is an important cardio protection," she says. "But we can't give it to our [more at-risk] offensive linemen." So if they take it, they have to get it and give it to themselves. "and then there's the risk of them being around supplements" they shouldn't take.

"If I could give it to them, I could protect them," she says. But the NCAA says no.

Is anyone surprised? Twombley says the CPSDA has requested the NCAA to get into the real world as far as its food regulations are concerned for the good of the athletes. But now she hears that the food issues have been put off to Phase 2 of the NCAA's ballyhooed coming deregulation.

There's another issue that impacts USC maybe almost as much as the minimal cost-of-living adjustment for high-cost LA housing for Trojans living off campus that Matt Kalil recently said left him with little money to eat on.

At other programs, Twombley says it's not uncommon for players to sit down for their one meal a day and then head home "with five or six to-go bags," of food that will carry them a good way through that day and the next. Only not at USC. That's a Compliance no-no where USC goes by the letter of NCAA law and then some.

"When they sign in, they have to sign either to eat the meal there or take a to-go bag," Twombley says of USC athletes. "They can't do both as they can at other schools where they can walk out with as much food as they can carry."

That would be against the rules at USC. "We are very tight here in terms of Compliance," Twombley says.

So Twombley does what she can. Morrell does cooking classes for athletes. Twombley takes them to Costco. "I'm constantly putting together trips there," she says, "at least once a week. They have to have their own card."

And some athletes, maybe a half-dozen right now, are on the daily Sunfare delivered diets that are fairly pricey and offer mostly two meals a day. "The food is good, the portions are right," says Twombley, who coordinates the prepared diets with companies like Sunfare.

If it were up to her, she'd have all her athletes on it. "I would," she says.

And while football is the biggest challenge, because of the large numbers all eating at the same time, "water polo is the highest energy need," according to Twombley.

But football gets the attention and when a case like Tyron Smith is brought up, how he moved on to the Athletes Performance group in Arizona two years ago and put on 36 pounds of muscle in barely more than two months on the way to becoming the No. 1 offensive lineman selected in the NFL Draft.

"It shows that all they have to do is eat right," Twombley says, "He had three planned meals a day." And no NCAA standing in the way. Nor any fast food either.

Stories like that encourage Twombley, who likes to work this way. When asked why she pulled off the sour cream from the baked potatoes in the pregame meal, she told them that it was because "It's an average food . . . you don't want to be average, do you?"

As to how to deal with a Sun Bowl meal at the famed Cattleman's Steak House on a ranch outside of El Paso, she just tries to educate the guys and trust them to handle it.

"I can't be there all the time," she says. And when a player like Hayes Pullard, with a special fondness for cheesecake, well, maybe two or three days before a game, he can have some. And that's OK with Twombley.

"These kids are amazing," she says of the USC atletes she deals with every day. "Best group of kids I've ever worked with."

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.


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