KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — John Fulkerson didn't want to go out that way.
The 5th-year senior was knocked to the ground by two vicious elbows from a Florida player in the SEC tournament in March. He suffered a facial fracture and concussion and was unable to return to the court before Tennessee's basketball season ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
In fact, if that injury hadn't happened, Fulkerson may not have taken advantage of the NCAA waiver allowing an additional year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think I would now be considering other options. 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," he said.
Fulkerson announced the decision that thrilled Vol fans last week with a video on Twitter.
On Tuesday morning, he met with the media to talk about his decision to return to Rocky Top for an unprecedented sixth season.
"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. 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," he said.
Fulkerson will be the most experienced player on the team without a doubt and knows his role will be helping the new additions to the roster adjust.
"I do see myself as a player-coach because I've played for coach Barnes for awhile now and I think that I know what he's wanting and know his system and I think that it's great to have a voice out there that can help the guys," he said.
The team will look very different next year, with the departures of several key players, most notably Yves Pons, and coaches.
Fulkerson, who said he is fully recovered from his injuries, is participating in spring practice and looks forward to hitting the court with his new teammates.
"I pretty much had my decision made before we started bringing in all of those recruits, but when we were getting all of those recruits it really made me want to let you guys know and let this next team know that I was going to be on the team and I was going to do whatever I could do to help this team and how excited I was to play on this team. So I had my decision made up, but once we started getting all of these recruits, it made me so much more excited to let them know," he said.
Vol fans love the Kingsport native not just for his ability on the court, but for his obvious passion for being a Volunteer.
"The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the way that I ended here at Tennessee. I was talking to Bob Kesling last night and I told him just my love for this university and when I put on a Tennessee jersey for this community, for the city of Knoxville. I just didn't want to end it the way that I did, especially if I had the chance to do it again and finish on my terms, then I would love to do that and I would love to go out how I want to go out. So the more I thought about that, the more it got me excited to have the ability to return," he said.
Fulkerson is looking forward to another season to try to win it all, hopefully unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he felt like the illness really impacted not only himself but everyone who played.
"I did have COVID, and I think that COVID affected a lot more than my play. COVID affected a lot of people and a lot of different programs, and I think it can go as far as having the fans in the arenas affected a lot of different programs, people, and players. 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. I think all around it affected this whole program and that's what makes me so excited for next year is it to be more of a normal year. I heard Danny White talk about last night, that he wants Neyland Stadium packed full, so I hope he can say the same about Thompson-Boling Arena. It makes me just so excited about next year and seeing what we can do," he said.