To understand the grace and pain of John Fulkerson's tumultuous week, start with his mom

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

John Fulkerson wasn’t sleeping. He wasn’t eating. He was emotionally drained and alone in his Indianapolis hotel room Tuesday night.

Some 400 miles away, Ramona Fulkerson could sense her son’s pain. She broke down and began to cry.

“I just felt an emptiness with not being able to be with John,” Ramona Fulkerson said. “I don’t care how big your kids get or how old your kids get. When they are hurting, I think they feel like they need their mommas. But mommas need to be close by, too.”

The Fulkerson family has endured a tumultuous week since Fulkerson, a Tennessee basketball senior, crumpled to the court after Florida forward Omar Payne viciously elbowed him twice in the head on March 12. 

Fulkerson doesn’t remember the incident that dealt him a concussion and facial fracture. He doesn’t recall being on the court at all that day. His family hasn’t seen him in person since he was helped off the floor at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. They headed to Indianapolis on Friday morning, hoping for his health regardless of whether he plays for Tennessee again.

Fulkerson’s status is uncertain as No. 5 Tennessee (18-8) faces No. 12-seeded Oregon State (17-12) on Friday (4:30 p.m. ET, TNT) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“I think John is seeing his platform now more than ever as he gets a chance to be in a real spotlight,” Ramona Fulkerson said. “It might not be the spotlight he wanted, but John understands that people are looking at him for how do you respond? How do you react even in these tough times?”

'That is just not who he is'

All Ramona Fulkerson knew was that her son was laying on the floor at Bridgestone Arena. 

Tennessee forward John Fulkerson (10) holds his head after an injury during the second half of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament game against Florida at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, March 12, 2021.

She watched as Florida inbounded the ball, turning her attention down the court. But before the play started, Fulkerson went down in a heap. His teammates rushed to help him as approximately 20 members of the Fulkerson family watched helplessly.

She didn’t see how her son was injured until her daughters received replays on their phones.

“I think it is easier for us to swallow with John being on the receiving end of that,” she said. “If John had been on the throwing end, it would have been harder for us to accept that from John. Because that is just not who he is. That would have reflected on us as parents. Being on the receiving end of that was much easier because he just happened to be that person right there.

"I know that we all make mistakes. ... I think that it is understandable that sometimes your actions are not who you exactly are."

WHAT'S NEXT:As Tennessee basketball enters March Madness, what's next for John Fulkerson?

MIKE WILSON'S PREDICTION:Tennessee basketball vs. Oregon State in 2021 NCAA Tournament: Scouting report, prediction

But Fulkerson's actions this week do reflect who he is, according to those going through it with him. He was dealt a remarkably trying deal and balanced grace amid heartbreak and pain, blending his personality with his circumstances.

"It was amazing what he said the next day, in showing grace to this kid while he is going to have to go to the hospital and he’s hurting," said Scott Willard, who coached Fulkerson for two years at The Christ School in Arden, North Carolina. "It shows you the amazing amount of character that John has. We can all learn from how he is handling this."

Fulkerson has rested on a deeply entrenched faith instilled by his parents, who worry more about their son's character than his statistics. He's done so throughout a rocky senior season that hasn't lived up to expectations, started to turn for the better then was derailed by Payne's elbows.

"These tough times have been on John’s heels since the opening tipoff of the season," Ramona Fulkerson said. "I think he has held everything together well. He has represented himself, the university, his family and community in a first-class fashion."

Trying to be the tough man

Rick Barnes called the Fulkersons on Tuesday night. He has kept the family apprised of conversations with the NCAA and SEC regarding potential discipline for Payne stemming from the incident. 

Ramona Fulkerson responded with a request. Her heart was heavy and she felt her son was feeling the same way. She asked Barnes to check on Fulkerson, who — like his teammates — was freshly removed from being isolated in a hotel room for the first 20 hours in Indianapolis. 

“I feel like even though John would be open and honest with us, I don’t think he’s had full disclosure even with us about the extent to which his pain has impacted him,” she said. “I think he is probably trying to be the tough man and just play each day to its fullest strengths, which is not a whole lot for John right now.”

Tennessee's John Fulkerson holds his head after he took an elbow from Florida's Omar Payne.

It’s the parent’s job to care for the child. But Fulkerson has performed a mini-role reversal, seemingly bearing more of the burden to avoid saddling his parents with the depth of his struggle.

They have not been able to see each other since the incident, relying on FaceTime and steady communication. Fulkerson “has not been completely devastated” in those conversations, but his parents know the hurt is present even as he tries to hide it.

“He is still optimistic and says, ‘Hey, it is getting better,' and sends us a selfie every day, saying, ‘I think the swelling is going down,’” Ramona Fulkerson said.

Ramona Fulkerson was right. Barnes called again Wednesday morning and told them Fulkerson “needed emotional support.” Barnes called in Tim Miller, the pastor at Sevier Heights Baptist Church and a close friend of Fulkerson's.

“That time that was spent with somebody that was disconnected with Tennessee basketball and knew John on a personal level was what John needed,” Ramona Fulkerson said.

Starting with grace

Fulkerson's only comment regarding the incident with Payne spoke to his character.

"I know a lot of people are upset with what happened during yesterday’s game," Fulkerson wrote on Twitter. "Omar reached out to me this morning and was very remorseful. Everyone makes mistakes. Let’s all show grace and focus on today’s game."

Fulkerson's injuries were readily apparent. He had a black eye and wore ear plugs during Tennessee's loss to Alabama in the SEC Tournament the day after the injury. He was active with his teammates throughout the game, including consoling guard Davonte Gaines after the sophomore missed a pair of critical late free throws.

Injured Tennessee forward John Fulkerson, center, cheers on his teammates in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

But before the game it was Fulkerson's tweet that captured attention. 

“John Fulkerson, he is the best person that I have ever been around,” said Kevin Feltner, who coached Fulkerson in AAU for three seasons. “He turned the other cheek and forgave the individual that committed the flagrant foul on him, which was quite a bit more than a flagrant foul. For him to do that, I think speaks volumes to what kind of kid he is.”

Fulkerson went to Knoxville the following day with UT trainer Chad Newman to have a procedure to address the facial fracture. He returned to Nashville to rejoin his teammates before the Vols went to Indianapolis on Monday.

Fulkerson was shown walking on a treadmill during UT’s practice Tuesday night in a video on Twitter.

“The prayers lifted up are not that John would play but just that his strength would return … and continued prayers that there is no permanent damage,” said Mike Fulkerson, John’s dad. “We want him to have all his strength and cognitive skills restored. It is certainly slow progress. We certainly feel the prayers lifted up by Vol Nation.”

Smiling behind a mask

Fulkerson walked down the hall on UT’s assigned hotel floor Wednesday night.

He FaceTimed Feltner, the coach of the Tennessee Bobcats AAU program who considers Fulkerson a fourth son. 

“When I say he is one of my all-time favorite players, what I mean by that is he is one of my all-time favorite people,” Feltner said.

Fulkerson bumped into Lucas Campbell, a former UT guard-turned grad assistant who also played for Feltner’s AAU program, as he scooped up snacks and a pizza. Campbell and Feltner razzed each other, exchanging jokes and trading quips.

Feltner couldn't see Fulkerson's mouth because he was wearing a mask due to COVID-19 protocols. But he could see there was still happiness on Fulkerson's face.

"I could tell John was smiling inside his mask and that is not easy to do when you have a (facial fracture),” Feltner said.

Feltner is among those whom Fulkerson has leaned on this week as he has battled isolation and injury. Feltner praised the way Fulkerson has conducted himself.

“Right now, for John to speak to someone takes effort,” Feltner said. “These are very serious injuries that he endured. This isn’t just two elbow happening in a game of basketball. These were severe hits that caused him to have to have emergency surgery. …

“I think he is handling it as good as any player could that has had the type of injuries that he has had.”

Feltner did not plan to go to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament. He intended to take care of some family matters and AAU business during the weekend.

He changed his plans during that call with Fulkerson when he asked Feltner if he would be coming. He told him he wasn’t. 

“I said, ‘Would it be meaningful to you if I was?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’” Feltner said. "There was no way I could have said I can’t go.”

'I want to play'

Fulkerson called his mom in February. He had just finished Tim Tebow’s book “Shaken,” which focuses on handling disappointments and criticisms from a Christian perspective. He called it the best book he had ever read, declaring that it was filled with applications to his life.

Fulkerson has maintained such a perspective during his senior season that has mostly fallen short of preseason All-SEC expectations.

“I think that is the true testimony of the internal characteristics that John Fulkerson portrays on a basketball court,” Ramona Fulkerson said.

Emotions overwhelm Tennessee's John Fulkerson (10) as he waves to fans before walking off the court during the NCAA men’s basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Florida Gators in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

Whether there will be another game for Fulkerson at Tennessee remains to be seen. He might need his teammates to make a run in the NCAA Tournament for him to get a chance to fulfill his dream of playing for the Vols again.

“He was very clear: ‘I do not want to end on this negative note. I want to play,’” Feltner said. “His intention is he wants to get better and he wants to play in the tournament.”

The Fulkersons aren’t focused on whether Fulkerson will play Friday — or later in the NCAA Tournament.

They just want him to be OK. They want to alleviate his pain in any way possible. They want to know the injuries that ail him now won’t persist.

Above all, they just want to see him and be near him.

“We want to be able to sneak down to the first row and be behind the bench to have a conversation,” Mike Fulkerson said. “We are just thrilled to get to see him in person and excited to cheer the team on. Just pulling for the team and just as if John was out there and I know John will be cheering them on from the bench — if he’s not playing.”

The Tennessean's Chris Thomas contributed to this report.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.