RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Tech fans are some of the most passionate in college football. They will wear almost anything colored Chicago maroon and burnt orange. That got Virginia Tech announcer Jon Laaser thinking about taking that passion and channeling it towards one of our biggest medical crises today.
The response blew him away.
After becoming the radio voice of the Virginia Tech Hokies, Laaser started to search for a saying, something that would distinguish and endear him to his new audience.
Borrowing partly from one of his childhood idols, Laaser found his phrasing, "Nothing in front of him but clean mountain air!"
"I'd be at Hokie Club events or at ACC kickoff and that's what people would shout at me. "There's nothing in front of me!" as we're going down Main Street," Laaser said.
The phrase caught on in a way Laaser could not have imagined.
While the pandemic has been negative in many ways, it did have some positives and led to something of a brainstorm in Blacksburg.
"During the pandemic, we had a lot of time to think. I thought I wonder if fans would enjoy something that said that on it. Because people from Blacksburg and people from Tech, they love that," Laaser said.
With the help of a graphic designing friend, Laaser came up with a logo touting his catch-phrase. With no discernable marketing or distribution channels, Laaser put the word out on Twitter and received 100 orders with his first tweet.
"They'd take pictures and send it back to us, "Look Laze, there's nothing but clean mountain air in front of me!" while they're hiking. Organically would be a good way. Chaotically would be another good way to describe it," Laaser said.
Laaser and his wife Renee turned their den into a mailroom using Amazon mail pouches and making regular trips to their UPS and post office to get out hundreds of orders every time they debut a new item. It resonated in so many ways with so many people and in one particular way Laaser could not have seen coming.
"Clean mountain air is kind of a synonym for clean living, clean head space, uncluttered all those types of things," he said. " Honestly, one thing led to another and it blew up."
Laaser's father Mark was a pioneer in the world of counseling and mental health. Having a professional in the house did not mean problems were readily solved and Laaser admits to struggling with low-level depression his entire life.
"I remember a lot of my friends being like man, you're so negative. And it would be every other day, right? The next day I'd be the most positive guy in the room and the life of the party and all those things," he said.
Laaser has donated nearly $5,000 in proceeds from t-shirt sales thus far to Mental Health America because he has seen firsthand how important mental health has become and how thin resources can be to address it.
"It's been really eye-opening," Laaser said. "I think a lot of people that struggle with this stuff do it in silence which has been the problem. And they do it in a lot of pain."
Dr. Gary Bennett works with the athletes at Virginia Tech.
"There's a lot of pressure to look perfect because nobody puts pictures on social media that are just so-so," Dr. Bennett said. "They'll take as many as it takes to get the perfect picture. Other people see that and compare themselves to that perfect picture and feel like I don't add up."
Laaser's mom Debbie is continuing the work that she and Laaser's father started nearly 30 years ago. Both are encouraged by a generation more open to discussing mental health issues, but that also means more resources are necessary to fill the demand.
"That's a challenge for us. Having enough people available who will be there when somebody needs help," Bennett said.
"Just like we have personal trainers for our physical health, or we ask for coaches to learn how to play the piano or learn a sport, we need coaches to know how our brain is struggling sometimes. There's no one with an absolute perfect brain. It's an area of our life that we could all stand to work on," Debbie Laaser added.
Mark Laaser passed away two years ago. He left behind a legacy his wife and son are more than happy to continue.
"The industry certainly isn't perfect. It's getting better but treatment, a lot of times takes a lot of resources that people who are struggling haven't been able to build," Jon Laaser said. "I think he would love that, that she's carrying that on, and that I am."
Laaser, who doesn't have a website, continues to take orders over social media. He has sent shirts to every state except Alaska and announced earlier this week that future proceeds will be directed towards the Cook Counseling Center which works with the student-athletes at Virginia Tech.
You can find Jon Laaser on Twitter here.
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