John Fulkerson’s senior day inside of Thompson-Boling Arena seemed to be telling at the time. The veteran forward from Kingsport had lived his dream, playing five seasons as a Tennessee Volunteer. However, a COVID-plagued season offered him the chance at another go at it.
Still, watching Fulkerson play the final game of the regular season and get emotional afterwards seemingly suggested that his mind was made up on leaving. That was until he took an elbow from Florida’s Omar Payne during the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Fulkerson ended up fracturing his face, and his season came to a close two games early. He was unable to play the next day against Alabama, and was again forced to miss the next game — the NCAA Tournament loss to Oregon State.
It would have been a tough way for such a beloved player to end his career, and the situation ultimately weighed into his decision to return.
“I think I would now be considering other options,” Fulkerson said on Monday, speaking of how his season ended. “I think that was really a big key factor that played into my decision-making to come back to Tennessee. I think that it was really God showing me that I had the opportunity and chance to do it one more time.”
Fulkerson struggled through much of his senior season, battling lingering injuries and even a bout with COVID. It was far from what everyone expected after a breakout junior season, as Fulkerson ended up struggling to even be a part of the offense late in the year.
Ultimately, it was enough for the hometown kid to try one more time.
“There was a lot that was going through my head and really I was just weighing out my options to see what the best decision was for me and just making sure that I was going to make the right decision for myself,” Fulkerson told the media. “After a lot of prayer and consideration and talking with my parents, talking with some mentors and people I really look up to, I decided to come back. It wasn’t really all about me personally, but really for me to help this team that we’re going to have next year, and to mentor some of the guys coming in. I really think that this team is going to be special and we can really accomplish something.”
Fulkerson averaged 13.7 points as a junior, but that number tumbled down to 9.5 last season. Rick Barnes defended Fulkerson throughout the year, noting injuries and his COVID issues.
On Tuesday, Fulkerson confirmed that he did have COVID during the season, and explained how the entire pandemic affected his season.
“I did have COVID, and I think that COVID affected a lot more than my play,” Fulkerson said. “One of things for me is, you guys know how much of an energy player I am and how much I love the fans, and I really like playing off the fans and their energy. With them not being there, every team in this country had to create their own energy. Not only for me, but for every team out there, COVID affected them, whether they had it or not personally as far as their stamina, their conditioning, the energy, and things like that.”
Fulkerson returns to find a few new high-profile teammates. He will be joined in the post by five-star power forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and four-star center Jonas Aidoo. They will be joined by five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler, who will take control of the Tennessee offense.
Rick Barnes said immediately after the season that the Volunteers were lacking an interior presence, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. Barnes is now hoping that the Fulky from 2019-20 returns this fall, while Huntley-Hatfield and Aidoo get up to speed in the program.