“I’m going to make sure that you are the man that your mom wanted you to be”; Palatka High School football coach tackles 20s while raising successful teen

Updated: Jun. 20, 2021 at 11:17 PM EDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - A Palatka High School football coach tackled his twenties while raising a teen on his way to the pros.

When his soon to be coach Ulysses Tobler met the now 21-year-old college football athlete Ajay Belanger during his middle school years, Tobler knew he had potential.

“You could just tell he was young, kind of like that raw talent,” Tobler said.

Fast forward to taking him home after practice and becoming a father figure, the two built a bond once he became Ajay’s coach at Clay County High School. With that role, came responsibility.

Ajay’s mother, Lisa Durrence, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when he was 15.

“In Orlando we actually discovered that it was as big as a golf ball and that she actually was really sick,” Belanger said.

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At just 24, Tobler had a life changing conversation with Lisa.

“‘Will you take full ownership of our kid?’' She was like jokingly,” Tobler explained. “I was like yes I will”

“He was the father that I needed, and I just didn’t really want anybody else to be my guardian,” Belanger expressed.

Losing his mother soon after took a toll on his everyday life.

“I just didn’t really want to do anything after she passed away,” Belanger said.

Now, he said because coach Tobler pushed him to his best, he did things he couldn’t imagine.

“Even graduating and going to a college,” Belanger said.

He played wide receiver for the Tusculum Pioneers in Tennessee and is now in the transfer portal because Tobler took him in.

Tobler continues coaching and teaching now at Palatka High School and he still helps kids reach their dreams, just like he did for Ajay.

“That’s my mission,” Tobler said. “That’s my life goal, is to make an opportunity to break cycles and just give kids opportunities.”

He didn’t fumble that mission with Ajay by letting him know he would always be there.

“I’m here with you every step of the way and I’m going to make sure that you are the man that your mom wanted you to be,” Belanger recalled a conversation with Tobler.

“Did I help save his life? I don’t know,” Tobler said.

He does know he helped create a successful path for Ajay to follow.

“I gave him a new life to become somebody that he always envisioned being,” Tobler added.

Breaking stigmas and shaping young men will always be his main goal.

TV20 worked with ESPN’s The Undefeated on this story, read more by clicking here.

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