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VOL. 45 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 19, 2021

NCAA offers one more run for VFL Fulkerson

By Rhiannon Potkey

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John Fulkerson sat alone on the scorer’s table, right hand covering his reddened eyes, left hand gripping a Gatorade towel and a basketball tucked under his forearm.

The seats behind the table were empty, with only cardboard cutouts of fans providing a surreal yet fitting backdrop.

It has not been the storybook senior season Fulkerson had in mind.

The University of Tennessee forward has struggled through a frustrating few months defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, nagging injuries and unmet expectations.

Fulkerson out of first-round game

Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson won’t be playing in the Volunteers’ first-round game with Oregon Stat after taking elbows to his head from Florida’s Omar Payne in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, causing a concussion and facial fracture.

The injury also had caused Fulkerson to miss the Vols’ Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal loss to Alabama last week.

Fulkerson averages 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.

Payne did not play in Florida’s tournament-opening, overtime win over Virginia Tech.

But for what may have been his final game at Thompson-Boling Arena, Fulkerson did what has endeared him to coaches, teammates and fans. He left everything on the court.

Fulkerson celebrated Senior Day with 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists to help Tennessee rally for a victory against rival Florida.

The Kingsport native checked out of the game for good with 32 seconds remaining. Before exiting, he kneeled to kiss the midcourt stripe. Tears began flowing as he approached the bench and hugged his coaches and teammates.

“That moment I realized that I was playing my last game inside TBA in front of Vol Nation, it just made me really emotional, because of all the times, the memories and coaches I’ve met while on this court and in this program over the last five years,” Fulkerson said after the game.

“I just thought of all of the times and all of the success we had on and off the court. Again, it’s relationships I’m going to have for the rest of my life and I’m very sad for it to be coming to an end. I’ve had the time of my life here and I don’t want it to end, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

That work continues in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols were selected as a No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region and play Oregon State in the first round Friday in Indianapolis. Oregon State was the surprise champion of the Pac-12 Tournament after being picked to finish last in the conference in the preseason.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the entire NCAA Tournament is being held in one city this year to try and mitigate the chance of infection spreading among teams.

It’s an opportunity for the Vols to make up for some of the disappointment of the regular season. The No. 5 seed Vols (18-8) will face 12 seed Oregon State (17-12) at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

With seniors Yves Pons and Fulkerson surrounded by a core of young talent, the Vols were ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and picked by the media to win the SEC title.

But they ended up finishing fourth in the SEC and were eliminated by top-seeded Alabama in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

Fulkerson wasn’t able to play against the Crimson Tide. He suffered a concussion in Tennessee’s victory over Florida in the SEC quarterfinal when Florida’s Omar Payne hit Fulkerson with a forearm to the face and an elbow to the head in a dirty play that was denounced by many.

But true to Fulkerson’s character, he showed grace to Payne. The following morning, Fulkerson shared a message on social media forgiving Payne and letting people know Payne had reached out to apologize for his actions.

On Sunday, Fulkerson returned to Knoxville to have a surgical procedure done on his face before rejoining the team. He will be evaluated daily to determine his status for the NCAA Tournament.

“I’ve said it before. It’s never going to be about John Fulkerson,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes says. “He wants his teammates to win and wants to be a part of it, and nobody is pulling more for him to do that than his teammates.”

Like nearly all seniors across the nation, Fulkerson didn’t get the proper send-off for Senior Day. Instead of Thompson-Boling Arena being filled to the rafters, a limited capacity crowd cheered from their properly distanced seats because of the pandemic.

After a few weeks of inconsistent play, Fulkerson provided a spark that had been missing from the Vols. Barnes was happy to see Fulkerson playing up to his potential against the Gators on such a special day.

“No one loves this university more than he does,” Barnes points out. “I think he would tell you he’s been a Volunteer his whole life, and for him, it was an emotional day. For him to come out and play aggressive and with the force that he did at times is what we need. I’m happy for him.”

In advance of Senior Day, Fulkerson reminisced about the moment the Tennessee coaching staff offered him a scholarship. He was in the Atlanta area playing in a tournament.

“When they called me and told me that they were with the University of Tennessee it was honestly like a dream come true,” Fulkerson recalls.

“And it still feels as if I’m living a dream – that a kid from Kingsport gets to come and play for his state university, which has always been his dream. I’m very blessed to be in this position, but I can remember it like it was yesterday.”

Fulkerson quickly became a fan favorite of Vol Nation. His quirky personality, humble work ethic and love for Pal’s food endeared him to fans.

Although Fulkerson is a fifth-year senior, it was not necessarily his final game at Thompson-Boling Arena. He could choose to return to school next season, with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to players stemming from the COVID-19 disruptions.

“I still haven’t decided,” Fulkerson acknowledges. “We went through Senior Day as if it was, and I mean, I really don’t know if I can go through another Senior Day like that because it was so emotional. My feelings were so out there.”

Fulkerson made sure to savor every second just in case he doesn’t return. He handed out towels to kids in the stands after the buzzer sounded, and lingered on the court in full uniform taking pictures with his family.

The Vols have made big strides as a program while Fulkerson’s been on the roster, but they still have postseason goals that haven’t been accomplished.

A deep run in the NCAA Tournament would mean everything to Tennessee. The Vols have the talent. They’ve just struggled to put it all together for extended periods.

No matter when he plays his final game for Tennessee, Fulkerson plans to thank everyone at the university that has impacted his life. He’s determined to pay it forward to others once he leaves.

In terms of his legacy at Tennessee?

“I want to be known as the ultimate teammate that was there for one another when times were good and bad,” Fulkerson says. “I want to be known as someone that played hard all the time, someone that hustled and had lots of energy.”

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