‘I can’t believe that you chose me‘
A football player, his coach and a dying mother’s wish on who would raise her son
It’s an unbearably hot afternoon on the first day of summer football sessions. So it’s no surprise that many of the North Florida middle schoolers post their best 40 times of the day sprinting toward the doors of Palatka High School to seek relief. But as they near the comfort of indoor air conditioning, a high school assistant coach stops them in their tracks.
“If any of y’all want to see me in Warzone and need a partner, let me know,” shouts Ulysses Tobler, one of the group of Palatka High School coaches overseeing the practice. “Don’t reach out if you sorry. If you sorry, I don’t want to play with you.”
Right there, an instant connection is made with the middle school kids via a mutual interest in video games.
It’s one of the many strengths Tobler has displayed during a coaching career that was launched in 2014 following his playing days as the quarterback at the University of Charleston.
“My biggest reason for coaching is to give kids opportunities to better themselves,” said Tobler, whose yellow Palatka High School T-shirt bears words that he lives by: “Fear None, Respect All.” “Some of these kids don’t have positive role models. Some of these kids don’t have a father figure.”
One of those kids was Ajay Belanger.
Before Tobler became a coach at Palatka, he was an assistant coach at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs, Florida. That’s where he got to know Belanger, whose father was never in his life. And that’s where he got to know Belanger’s mother, Lisa Durrance, who six months before she died of pancreatic cancer in 2016 asked a then-24-year-old Tobler:
Would he agree to become the father to her 15-year-old son?
Tobler’s first encounter with Belanger came in 2012 when he was home for Christmas break. Still a college football player at the University of Charleston at the time, Tobler went to the Thomas Hogans Memorial Gym in Green Cove Springs to play basketball.
As Tobler, known locally back in the day as Boobie, launched shots on one court, he saw a skinny kid struggling with his shot mechanics on the other court.
“He looked like my nephew, that’s why I walked over to him,” Tobler said of that initial encounter with Belanger, a tall, lanky kid who had recently moved to Green Cove Springs with his mother, brother and two sisters from West Palm Beach. “He was working on his shot, and all I saw was young, raw talent. I walked over to help him.
“He looked at me like I was crazy.”
The two didn’t cross paths again until two years later, when Belanger entered Clay High School in 2014 with the desire to play football.
When Belanger showed up at his first meeting with visions of playing quarterback, he saw a familiar face: Tobler, who had recently graduated from college, had been hired as the school’s new quarterbacks coach.
“He was a varsity coach, but he took the time to work out with me,” Belanger said. ”When freshman practice would end, I’d leave. He encouraged me to hang around and work out with the varsity.”
Belanger soon realized the best position for playing time would be at wide receiver, so he made the switch. Coincidentally, at the same time, Tobler had shifted from coaching quarterbacks to receivers.
“I had to deal with him every day, and we created a connection,” Belanger said. “As he coached me, it drew me closer because I felt like he was the father figure I never had.”
Belanger, after improving his once-broken jump shot, also played a season on Tobler’s junior varsity basketball team at Clay High.
It was during this time that Tobler had his first encounter with Belanger’s mom.
Tobler, like many coaches, drove some of his junior varsity players home on game nights. On one night, a road varsity game ran late and, since the teams traveled together, that caused a later departure for the bus back to Clay High. That left Tobler hustling to get some of his players home. As he pulled up to Belanger’s house past the expected time, the front door was flung open and his mother emerged. She was furious.
“ ‘Uh-oh,’ ” Belanger told Tobler. “ ‘I’m in trouble.’
“My mom was worried,” Belanger said. “We didn’t have enough money to get a phone for me, and when I didn’t get home at the usual time, she was calling around to see if something had happened to me.”
As Belanger slid past Durrance and through the front door, she lit into Tobler in what was their first conversation. She later told her son he could no longer play basketball.
When Belanger arrived at school the next day, he notified the head varsity coach, who asked Tobler to give Durrance a call.
Tobler remembers the conversation well.
“ ‘I have four kids, but that’s my baby,’ ” Tobler recalled her saying. “ ‘That’s the one I’m overly protective of. If he’s going to play for you, I just want for you to communicate with me. I want to know that you’re not in and out of my baby’s life. You’re going to have to be the constant.’ ”
Who could have known, during that 2014 encounter, what those words would eventually mean?
Be the constant.
Durrance allowed her son to continue playing basketball, entrusting him in the hands of Tobler, who was now involved with him in two sports and took an added interest in Belanger outside of school.
Belanger’s transition to high school couldn’t have gone any smoother. He showed signs of being an impactful high school athlete, a wide receiver with great hands. And had a positive adult male mentor in his life.
But he had no clue that his mother was holding back information on a personal struggle that would alter his life. Belanger learned toward the end of his freshman year that his mother was battling cancer.
Being so young, he didn’t realize the magnitude of the battle she’d face.
“At first, I wasn’t necessarily fully emotional about it,” Belanger said. “I’m thinking it’s early, I know you can beat it, it’s good.”
Durrance initially received treatment at a hospital in Jacksonville. Eventually, she moved to Orlando to gain access to better doctors. She allowed her son to stay in Green Cove Springs with one of her friends, as he was adamant about finishing the school year at Clay High School.
More than a month after her move to Orlando, Durrance called Tobler to see if she could visit her son at school and pick him up from practice. Thinking nothing of it, Tobler told her it wouldn’t be a problem.
It turned out to be a problem. Tobler didn’t hear from Belanger for two weeks. Finally, he received a phone call from his player, who told Tobler he had moved to Orlando.
“I shouldn’t have been mad, because it’s not my kid,” said Tobler. “Some of these kids don’t have positive role models and I felt like I was that for him. I felt like I cared enough, and that I was making a difference in his life.”
Durrance called Tobler, too. She told him she wanted her son to be in a better home environment. Then she revealed she had cancer. She said she would eventually move back to Green Cove Springs to stay with a friend and asked if, during that time, her son could stay with him.
Tobler agreed, thinking her request was short term.
Then she jokingly told him, “You’re going to take over. You’re going to be his pops.”
In the summer of 2015, Belanger was back in Green Cove Springs, staying with Tobler while his mother continued treatment in Orlando. When Durrance made a trip back to Green Cove Springs to visit a friend, she called Tobler out to the car.
She was emotional as she revealed a secret.
“I haven’t told anybody, but the cancer is worse than I expected,” she told him. ”I don’t know how much longer I have.”
The rest of the conversation was a blur.
“Remember we joked about you one day becoming Ajay’s guardian, his dad and you said you would take him?”
“What I’m now asking you is if something happens to me, will you take full ownership of our kid?”
“Yes, I will.”
“You’re 24, but you’re his father.”
“I got you.”
By that time, Durrance had already spoken to a lawyer. Even surrounded by family who she loved and respected, she believed the best opportunity for her then-15-year-old son to have a great future would be under the guidance of a 24-year-old recent college graduate.
Tobler was shaken by the conversation.
“What did I do? Did I just get a kid?”
Belanger was halfway through his sophomore year of high school when his mother died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 17, 2016. She was 37.
In her final months, she was meticulous in planning her son’s future. Yet Belanger struggled as he watched his mother suffer as she underwent chemotherapy to treat the tumor that had grown to the size of a golf ball.
“It started getting worse over the summer, and I really didn’t know how to deal with it,” Belanger said. “I tried to cope by working out and focusing on school and trying to figure out everything that was going to happen, even though I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. It was hard to deal with.”
Following Durrance’s death, members of her family sought custody of Belanger, whose older siblings would live with family and friends throughout Florida. But Durrance had ensured that the transition to Tobler becoming Belanger’s legal guardian would be smooth.
The oft-used African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. Besides Tobler, Belanger’s village included Davin, the 26-year-old roommate who supported the addition to the household, and doting family members, including Tobler’s brother, who took him shopping for school clothes.
But it was Tobler who agreed to take on a responsibility of the highest magnitude as he approached the prime years of his life.
“All the 24-year-old things you can think of — having fun and going out, hanging out with your friends — that all changed,” Tobler said. “I felt like I hadn’t been here, so let us figure this out together.
“I had to make a man in two or three years. I had to mold him into a responsible adult.”
Tobler, now 29, has succeeded over these past five years.
In sports, Belanger became a success as a three-sport athlete (football, basketball and track) at Clay High, earning Class 5A All-state honors in football as a wide receiver.
In the classroom, Belanger graduated with a 3.34 GPA, earning honors in 2018 as one of the Florida Times-Union‘s remarkable seniors.
In the community, Belanger became that responsible adult that Tobler wanted him to become.
“It was really cool to watch the growth in their relationship,” said Josh Hoekstra, who was the head coach at Clay High School and who hired Tobler. “There’s parts of Green Cove that are pretty rough, and it’s not an easy place to come out of. Sometimes you need someone to show you the way, and I think that’s what Boobie did with Ajay.”
Belanger received an athletic scholarship to play football at Tusculum College, where he recently finished his junior season. After switching from wide receiver to tight end this past season, Belanger, now 21, entered the transfer portal hoping to move from Division II to Division I football.
“Ajay is a great kid, and I’m bummed out I’m probably going to lose him,” said Jerry Odom, the head football coach at Tusculum. “For all the situations he’s been through, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever been around.
“The last we spoke, he told me he wanted to be a teacher or a coach one day,” Odom added. “He’ll be successful wherever he goes, no matter where he ends up.”
It’s nearly 11 o’clock on a Tuesday night, a long day for Tobler and his family. Tobler, who began the day at 7:30 a.m. at the summer football camp in Palatka and ended the day driving some of those kids to a camp in Jacksonville and back to Palatka, is exhausted as he pulls into the driveway accompanied by his girlfriend, Haley Moore, and their 5-year-old son, Ulysses Tobler III. (That’s right, in 2016, Tobler became the father of a newborn and a 16-year-old.)
Belanger had just gotten home, too, after hanging out with friends. So when Moore is putting the little one to bed, Tobler and Belanger catch up on everything from entering the transfer portal to Stephen Curry’s shooting ability to pickup basketball games they’d play back in the day.
Their interactions shatter the stigma that’s often attached to Black fathers.
“I go back to the show Good Times. John Amos was this hard disciplinarian father all the time and it was never like, ‘Dang, do you love me?’ ” Tobler said. “The reputation we get as Black fathers is, are we there? And if we are there, are we engaged?”
“We are caring,” he added. “My kids know Daddy loves them. Their uncles love them. Their grandfather, before he passed away, loved them.”
Speaking specifically of his relationship with Ajay, he says, “I hug my son, love my son and allow my son to see me cry.”
When Tobler leaves the room, Belanger has a moment to reflect on the man he calls Coach, Pops and Dad.
“I didn’t know it at first, but I just felt like he was the father that I needed,” Belanger said. “I just didn’t really want anybody else to be my guardian. He was the person that I needed in my life to guide me to become that man.”
Belanger’s love, admiration and appreciation for Tobler is on full display. He speaks with a maturity well beyond his 21 years.
When asked what he would say directly to his dad on this weekend where dads are honored around the globe, he said:
“I don’t know where I’d be right now if you didn’t take me in. I’m so thankful for everything you’ve done. I don’t think I say ‘I love you’ enough.
“I can’t believe that you chose me out of everybody in this world. And I’m so grateful that you did.
“Happy Father’s Day.”