When Tennessee defeated Florida 65-54 in its 2020-21 regular season finale, John Fulkerson was still unsure how the next few months would play out.
Fulkerson, a redshirt senior, led the team in points as he was honored on Senior Day in potentially his last game at Thompson-Boling Arena. He had seemingly put a bow on an excellent career at Tennessee.
In the days leading up to that Florida game, and even after the game was finished, Fulkerson was still undecided what his next steps would be. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA had granted players an extra year of eligibility, meaning Fulkerson could return for an unprecedented sixth season at Tennessee or he could always turn pro.
Fulkerson had endured an inconsistent 2020-21 season, filled with numerous highs and lows. He averaged 9.5 points per game and was the team’s second leading rebounder, but he only scored double-digit points in three of the Vols’ last 13 games. The professional offers were not as lucrative for the 6-foot-9 forward as they were prior to the season.
The biggest factor in Fulkerson’s decision came when Tennessee played Florida just five days after that regular season finale in the opening round of the SEC Tournament. The Vols blew out the Gators, but Fulkerson was elbowed in the head twice by Florida’s Omar Payne. Fulkerson suffered a concussion and facial fracture and missed the rest of Tennessee’s short-lived postseason run.
Having his season cut short in a brutal way like that, paired with Tennessee’s elimination at the hot hands of Oregon State in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, all weighed heavy on Fulkerson, who took a month back home in Kingsport, Tennessee, to think and pray everything over.
“I think that was really a big key factor that played into my decision-making to come back to Tennessee,” Fulkerson said in an April press conference. “I think that it was God showing me that I had the chance and opportunity to do it one more time.”
Thirty five days after suffering a season-ending injury, Fulkerson announced his return to Rocky Top for one final ride on April 16. He wanted to end his Tennessee career on his own terms.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding," Fulkerson said in a Twitter video, citing Proverbs 3:5-6. "In all your ways, acknowledge him and we will make straight your path."
"My path still points to Rocky Top. This opportunity is too special to walk away from. Vol Nation, I’m back.”
But that final season has not started smoothly for Fulkerson. He underwent offseason wrist surgery which sidelined him for six weeks. Most recently, Fulkerson broke his left thumb, which knocked him out of the Vols’ 103-62 exhibition win over Lenoir-Rhyne on Oct. 30. It should not be a major setback, as Rick Barnes expects the preseason First Team All-SEC player back before meaningful games start.
It is all just another obstacle for Fulkerson to overcome. He dealt with a serious elbow and wrist injury his freshman season and tore his labrum the following year. Fulkerson has become quite familiar with Tennessee’s medical staff, but he hopes all of his injuries are out of the way now.
“Hopefully, I got all my injuries out before the season started,” Fulkerson said at Tennessee’s Media Day. “I ended the season last year with injury, and I’ve had a couple over the offseason, but hopefully I’ve got them all out of the way so I can have a great, successful season.”
Fulkerson is motivated to push through the injuries because he feels that something special is happening with this team. Fulkerson is truly optimistic for the first time in a while, thanks to the growth of in-house players like Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James, plus the addition of five-star freshmen Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield all under the tutelage of the veteran coach Barnes.
Among a group so young, Fulkerson hopes he can use five seasons of previous experience to lead the Vols to new heights.
“I think that with me coming back for my sixth year, I should definitely know a little about college basketball,” Fulkerson said. “Just trying to show the young guys a little bit what I’ve learned, and what I’ve learned from other great players that have been through this program and just trying to lead them in the right direction.”