When the journey of an alumnus eventually leads them to the position of athletic director at their alma mater, the friction along the way conjures up unique responsibilities. The role becomes more than the administrative tasks of managing, directing, and supervising the athletic department. One of the fundamental aspects of the job that 1998 graduate Jason Clay takes seriously is fostering and preserving a sense of loyalty toward Vandal sports that carries on past one’s diploma day.
Safe at Home
Once a Vandal, always a Vandal, Jason dishes on how he models the ultimate expression of loyalty to one’s hometown teams: “I don’t know if I saw that coming, but I’m really proud of the way it’s worked out,” he says. “I feel like I was a kid that was really connected and had a lot of pride in my school from a young age, and I felt like we were taught that there’s pride in being a Vandal.” By inspiring the same loyalty in students, Jason positively influences school culture, drives student participation, and enhances community engagement with the athletics program.
Jason started his Vandal career as a sixth grader who wanted to play basketball. “I had kind of gone to the bottom of the bench a little bit, and I was a little bit frustrated with that,” he remembers. By eighth grade, he was seeking new ways to improve his athletic ability, and he and his younger brother threw their hat into the ring and explored the world of wrestling. After a few tournaments, he decided it wasn’t for him and threw on a football helmet for the first time. Though he’d stick with football, wrestling crept back into his life later at VCHS. “I was resistant, I wasn’t going to [try out]. Then I went to watch my friends, and next thing you know, they take fourth in state,” Jason recalls, crediting this excitement with reviving his passion for wrestling. “It’s all this big exciting thing and next year I was a sophomore and I decided to go into wrestling.”
At McKendree College, Jason played football all four years and kicked up what he regards as several of his fondest memories of the sport. Among these highlights are playing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium in Canton, Ohio, and practicing on the home field of the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. The connections he established with teammates over the years have also followed him into alumni life. “There’s probably over a hundred guys that I played with who either coach in Illinois or Missouri. A lot of it’s high school football,” he says.
Since then, he’s become a grounded and beloved community staple through his crucial interactions with student players as athletic director. He considers Vandal loyalty a family affair. Jason sees proof of this in his daughter’s dedication to playing for Vandalia. “My daughter’s already fairly driven,” he says. “It’s exciting for me to see that because I feel that’s how I was. I try to feed that fire a little bit.” By living and working in the community and raising kids in the same school system he passed through, Jason says his family feels “totally invested” in the district: “I feel like we’re super dedicated to the school and the district because of how important it is in our lives and in the community we live in.”
One action of many that points to his unbreakable commitment to Vandal sports is his push to improve district building facilities. The “Forging Our Future” campaign has introduced a $4.75 million dollar goal to be raised over the next three years for upgrades to the wrestling and weight rooms, football field, tennis courts, bleachers, and concession stand building. The projects were jump-started by a generous $100,000 donation from former Vandalia athlete Bob Culbertson and his wife, retired Vandalia teacher Susan Culbertson. The improved facilities will achieve the goal of assisting student-athletes in improving physical skill, Jason highlights, but will also endow students with practical life skills. For him, life lessons are learned through competition and teamwork. “A lot of people have been positively impacted by a coach or being part of a team, and I think there’s a lot of skills our society is struggling to teach right now,” he explains. “I think that some of the opportunities that coaches have to teach in an athletic situation is huge for kids and their success long term.” There’s no better opportunity than one where you can heighten a player’s dedication to their alma mater’s teams, Jason believes, as such an example inspires students to give back to their school in the same ways.
Jason says he doesn’t think about his impact now but is willing to entertain us on the prospect of his legacy at VCHS. The summary? It’s all about relationships. “One of the things that motivates me is trying to provide kids with an experience where they look back on things and they have really fond memories of high school and playing sports,” he says, “being part of a team and going to the playoffs and Friday night football. Everything that goes along with it.” It’s a tradition he loves to be a part of. When he watches the younger football kids admiring the Varsity game from the sidelines on Friday night, excitedly pointing out play-by-play and marveling over particular players, he’s reassured that loyalty to an athletic program goes beyond rooting for a team: the commitment itself becomes a goal achievable by demonstrating greatness. Jason is living proof of that.