The team behind the team

(Lenny Gilmore/RedEye photos )
December 18, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | RedEye

Everyone knows the star athlete. Fans cheer for him, marvel at his athleticism, seek his autograph and snap pictures.

But what about the Jerry Maguires of the sports world? Every Chicago sports team has a supporting roster. The team behind the athlete is part of the entourage, in the locker room and behind the scenes.

At times, they're spotted or mentioned publicly. Derrick Rose travels with a bodyguard: his former high school assistant basketball coach. White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy hired a massage therapist to help him with rehab after shoulder surgery. Duncan Keith gave props to his mental skills coach for improving his game on the ice.

In the midst of the NHL lockout, the Bulls season and the Bears' battle for a spot in the NFL playoffs, RedEye called a timeout to chat with sports staff about how they keep local athletes going strong.

Jenny Westerkamp, 26, Old Town

Position: senior sports nutritionist for SportFuel Inc., a consulting firm that works with the Blackhawks

Athletes want to be at the top of their game.

So eating right is just "another competitive edge," Westerkamp said.

Her jobas nutritionist for the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks' American Hockey League affiliate, and Hawks prospects is to gather information about their diets, their goals and theirfood sensitivity or digestion issues, and then recommend a customized meal plan.

She has helped athletes with grocery shopping, and is on call in case a player texts her asking for advice—on a restaurant menu, for example.

Nutrition is like training, Westerkamp said. She tells athletes that if they spend 15 minutes in the rink working on a skill, they should get up 15 minutes earlier to have a high-quality breakfast—and not the cereal that turns milk a different color.

"Nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good," she said. "You can't out-train a poor diet."

It can be challenging to persuade them that nutrition can change how they feel because they want quick results when it takes a few months to feel the benefits, she said.

Clint Reif, 32, Lombard

Position: assistant equipment manager for the Blackhawks

The locker room is Reif's office.

Players go to him if they need clean jerseys and helmets, sharpened skates or shortened or taped sticks.

Reif knows the players' idiosyncrasies. Marian Hossa is detail-oriented. Duncan Keith is meticulous. Patrick Kane just wants to come in and play hockey. Jonathan Toews is good to go as long as his skates are sharp and there are a couple of sticks on the wall.

"The best way to put it is, we're kind of in control of everything you see that is on the player come game time and practice," Reif said. "If we weren't there, the player would go on the ice naked."

He knows the athletes are the stars at the United Center, but he feels like he's part of the team.

He even has a championship ring and his name etched on the Stanley Cup to prove it.

"To be able to wake up every day and live out the dream I had as a little kid—maybe not the way I envisioned it, but to be a part of it—is still pretty cool," Reif said.

Rebecca Brie Briscoe, 33, Hyde Park

Position: stylist/image consultant for Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije

The 6-foot-6, 275-pound player can't exactly buy clothes off the rack. Much of his wardrobe must be custom-made and tailored for his body. That's where Briscoe comes in to help him look his best.

"He's really preparing for his life after football," she said. "Your image is important. [If] you walk into a business meeting and you want to close a deal, what you're wearing matters."

Briscoe puts together Idonije's outfits for special events in Chicago, such as Fashion's Night Out or Common's foundation gala. But he picks his own clothes most days from the clothes she stocks him with.

Briscoe got Idonije to trade baggy suits that hid his physique for more fitted, slim two-button suits. The struggle to get him to part with two mink coats in his closet hasn't been as successful.

Despite working with clothes and shopping, styling isn't as glamorous as people think, Briscoe said. There's a lot of paperwork involved, from billing to keeping track of receipts. But she sets her own schedule, stays away from the office and gets to know Idonije.

"He's a really nice person, so it's fun to work with him," she said.

Megan Leahy, 35, Irving Park

Position: podriatist for the Fire

If feet gross you out, you can't handle Leahy'sjob.

She trims ingrown nails, shaves calluses and drains blisters for soccer players.

"Soccer is really hard on the feet. There certainly are routine foot problems that soccer players get," she said.

Leahy's share of injuries as a runner—starting with stress fractures at age 14—inspired her to become a podiatrist, so she can relate to athletes who struggle to play through injuries or get back on the field before they're ready and healed.

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