The NCAA announced last October that all Division I, II and III student-athletes in fall and winter sports would receive an extra year of eligibility whether they competed during these recent months or not.
Veteran Tennessee forward John Fulkerson vividly remembers the moment.
"I was actually in quarantine," Fulkerson said Tuesday. "Coach (Rick) Barnes called me with one of our assistants and said, 'Are you coming back?' I said, 'No, I've been here long enough.'
"I did not think for a single second that I would come back."
Fulkerson, who received a medical redshirt after dislocating his elbow 10 games into his freshman season in 2016-17 and played this past winter as a fifth-year senior, announced last Friday that he would be returning for the unique sixth year on the court. This past season did not go as planned for Fulkerson or the Volunteers, who started out 10-1 before splitting their final 16 games, which included a lethargic 70-56 loss to Oregon State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Two flagrant elbows from Florida sophomore forward Omar Payne to Fulkerson's head resulted in a concussion and a facial fracture in the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals and sidelined Fulkerson from NCAA play, but the scary incident also swayed his choice.
"That was really a big, key factor that played into my decision making to come back to Tennessee," Fulkerson said. "I think it was God showing me that I had the opportunity and chance to do it one more time."
The 6-foot-9, 215-pounder from Kingsport led the Vols during the 2019-20 season, averaging 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Those numbers dipped this past season to 9.5 and 5.5, with Barnes often having to address Fulkerson's struggles and promising that the veteran would not be "written out of the script."
Fulkerson revealed Tuesday on a Zoom call that he tested positive for COVID and that the entire pandemic impacted his decline.
"I think that COVID affected a lot more than my play," he said. "I think that COVID affected a lot of people and a lot of different programs. I think not having fans in the arena affected a lot of different programs and a lot of different people. 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 the country had to create their own energy, so COVID affected not only me and our team but every team out there, whether they had it or not personally. That's what has me excited for next year and what I hope will be a more normal year."
Fulkerson ended a rocky regular season with a 14-point, seven-rebound performance in a 65-54 win over Florida on a Senior Day at Thompson-Boling Arena in which he shed tears in the waning moments. The rematch against the Gators in Nashville was upstaged by the brutal blow Fulkerson endured, and then his hopes of playing with his teammates in Indianapolis were dashed.
After all that came decision time.
"That was a busy and jam-packed two weeks," Fulkerson said. "Once we got back after the season, I went home for about a week and just kind of decompressed. I wasn't able to play basketball, so I was just kind of hanging out with my family and chilling and spending time with them. That's when I had the opportunity to think about what I wanted my next step to look like."
Tennessee is in its fourth week of spring practices, and Fulkerson is happy to state he has worked all four weeks and that he is feeling fine. With a current signing class ranked No. 2 nationally and headed by five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler, with the addition of Auburn transfer guard Justin Powell, and with the return of teammates such as Victor Bailey, Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi, Fulkerson is beyond confident that he has made the correct decision.
"I really think this team is going to be special and that we can really accomplish something," he said. "The biggest thing I'm excited for is our team chemistry and our team-bonding opportunities. Last year, COVID really inhibited us from really hanging out as a team and creating our team chemistry. I think hanging out off the court and going to movies helps you just as much off the court as far as getting to know each other as being on the court.
"I pretty much had my decision made before Coach Barnes started getting in all these recruits recently, but when he was getting them, it really made me want to let you guys 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 for this team."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.