BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Jon Laaser is in his seventh season as the voice behind Virginia Tech football and men’s basketball, but this year, he’s sparking a conversation beyond the sidelines on mental health. What started as a memorable line on the radio has become a movement, bringing a whole new meaning to “Clean Mountain Air.”
“Something that was specific to Virginia Tech and what we’re proud of here. And of course in Blacksburg that’s just the fact that this is a little slice of heaven where the air is clean and it’s kind of a secret to the rest of the world,” Laaser said.
The phrase “Clean Mountain Air” was at first a memorable line born during the radio broadcast of the 2016 Commonwealth Clash.
“We were just clobbering them in Justin Fuente’s first year here and it was later in the game. They tried to run a play to the left and it was just an absolute debacle. It turned into a fumble and Andrew Motuapuaka picked up the fumble,” Laaser recalled. “There was just nothing there and I said, ‘there’s nothing but clean mountain air in front of him’.”
It was a phrase that stuck with Laaser and Hokie fans.
“I noticed over the next year when people would come up to me in Blacksburg or wherever we happened to be, they would yell that at me,” Laaser said.
Now you can find those words on a t-shirt around Virginia Tech’s campus. But for Laaser, it has little to do with the action he’s calling on the field. Instead, it speaks more to a personal journey on mental health.
“I’ve dealt with low level depression. My dad was the same way, my brother is the same way and it’s kind of that Laaser side of the family,” Laaser said. “It, at times, it makes you feel a negative slant and I’ve always used sports as the excitement. But when that’s going well, certainly at this level, everything’s great, everything’s going well and everybody loves you. But when it’s not and it’s inevitably not always going to be that way, the low points just became very low.”
Laaser became Virginia Tech’s director of broadcasting in 2015, succeeding Bill Roth, who had been in the booth for over a quarter of a century. And he admits, even the job you love can get pretty stressful.
“You’re not sleeping very well and when you’re not sleeping well, you’re usually grumpy. And after awhile, it was getting more and more heightened because of the pressure on the job and not wanting to let anybody down,” Laaser said. “Certainly in the shoes I was filling here, you just felt like you had to be perfect all the time. Eventually, it just got to that critical point where you’ve lived with it all your life and let’s stop putting it off and do something about it.”
In confronting his own mental health issues, Laaser encourages others to do the same. And that’s where the shirts come in, helping to raise money for Mental Health America.
“My wife and I were talking one night and it got to the point where we said ‘Clean Mountain Air’ is kind of a synonym for clean living and clean headspace and being uncluttered and wondered if we could make a partnership happen somewhere along the way,” Laaser said.
The shirts became a hot item and found its way to the backs of many Hokie athletes and even head football coach Justin Fuente.
“It means the world because of course he’s not blind to the level of visibility it has in those moments and that was pretty cool to me,” Laaser said. “Particularly just a few days out from the North Carolina Game that he would just take a sidestep for a couple of minutes and do that.”
The announcer has sold all 520 shirts that he originally ordered and plans to sell buttons with the “Clean Mountain Air” logo for the Hokies game against Notre Dame on October 9. Long term, Laaser is considering expanding the merchandise line to hats and long sleeve shirts.
And with the increased exposure, Laaser is amplifying the conversation on mental health far beyond the airwaves.
“I know there are a ton of people struggling with that and want them to know that’s not abnormal and bigger than that, it’s not something that makes you weak. In my case it made me stronger,” Laaser said. “The fact that they’re talking about it when they wear this shirt, they tell a story.”
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