John Fulkerson talks Rocky Top return, COVID impact


A tearful John Fulkerson (10) waves to fans as he leaves the court during a win over Florida in an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Knoxville, Tenn. Fulkerson, a senior, played his final home regular season game in the arena. (Randy Sartin/Pool Photo via AP)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – In a somewhat surprising turn of events, John Fulkerson decided to return for a 6th season at Tennessee.

The BasketVols fan-favorite had a tearful goodbye during Senior Day celebrations that ended with him telling the media he just didn’t think he could go through that emotional day again. At that point, he had not made up his mind, but it was safe to assume goodbye’s were eminent.

Then, he took an elbow to the face.

And, another one.

Fulkerson admitted on the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum show that he was looking for a sign from God and it came in the form of Omar Payne’s elbow. Of course, there was slightly more thought that went into this decision.

“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,” said Fulkerson. “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.”

In one of the best off-season weeks in Tennessee basketball history, the Vols landed two major recruits in the span of 24 hours and then topped it off with Fulkerson’s announcement. Five-star forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield committed and then reclassified to be a part of the 2021 class, and four-star center Jonas Aidoo said he’s headed to Rocky Top.

“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.”

In addition to the elbows that kept him out of the SEC Tournament semifinals and the NCAA tournament, Fulkerson’s 5th season was riddled with challenges.

“I did have COVID, and I think that COVID affected a lot more than my play. 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.”

The Tennessee native says he’s looking forward to the prospect of a full house next season.

“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.”

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