NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In 2016, Kristian Fulton's path to the NFL seemed like a given. The five-star high school cornerback prospect landed at LSU, a place considered a factory for NFL defensive backs. He showed promise in three games as a freshman before a fractured finger ended his season.
The next year, Fulton was projected to be LSU's primary nickel cornerback. But entering his sophomore season, he was suspended for two years for tampering with a drug test. His future was in jeopardy.
There's an old saying that adversity makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker. Fulton, who was the second-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in the 2020 NFL draft, chose to view his make-or-break moment as a learning experience he could use to make himself a better person and still reach his goal of becoming a pro football player.
In February 2017, Fulton was asked to take a drug test but didn't realize it was for performance-enhancing drugs. The then-18-year-old had been smoking marijuana and thought the test would detect it.
Fulton was afraid of failing the test so he planned to use someone else's urine sample rather than his own. The test administrator saw Fulton pouring the contents of a small bottle into the beaker that was supposed to be filled with his sample. Fulton noticed someone approaching him so he used his own sample after all. Fulton's sample didn't show any signs of performance-enhancing drugs, but he was suspended for tampering.
"It made me extremely mentally tough dealing with that situation -- that was the main thing -- and holding myself accountable," Fulton said. "Going through that, it taught me a lot about accountability and mental toughness. I thought I had it, according to my freshman self. I learned that I didn’t. There was another level I had to elevate myself to. I learned a lot about myself."
Fulton was able to practice with the team while suspended. He chose to attack each practice with the highest effort. That's not to say there weren't tough times along the way.
He didn't attend the games -- he said it was too hard not to be able to participate. Instead, Fulton spent Saturdays with his father, Keith, in his dorm room watching the game on TV. Keith helped his son stay focused on his goal to make it to the NFL. But to get there, Fulton had to overcome the suspension to make his mark.
Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond was one of the reasons Fulton chose to attend LSU over Florida. As Fulton's position coach, Raymond saw the highs when Fulton was excelling in practice, as well as the lows when not being able to play in games made him question whether he was "doing all of it for nothing."
"Being a young kid at that time and not understanding that there was light at the end of the tunnel, it made him grow up fast and not give up on himself," Raymond said. "He stayed focused and didn't worry about what was going on or what was being said. He controlled his destiny by coming and working every day through the highs and lows. He worked like he was going to be a starter. That's what kept me going with him and being positive with him."
Raymond connected Fulton to former LSU defensive backs such as Tyrann Mathieu, Ryan Clark and Corey Webster to talk about his situation. Clark worked out with Fulton and served as his mentor. Clark commended Fulton for how he handled the situation.
"He never made noise himself," Clark said. "Didn't miss a training session, didn't miss a class -- just focused and controlled what he could. He took responsibility for his actions and responsibility for repairing what he had lost."
Junior colleges inquired about Fulton. He even received a two-year contract offer with one year guaranteed from a Canadian Football League team. Despite all of the external forces tugging at him, Fulton stuck with it at LSU thanks to the support from his family, especially his father.
"A lot of people would’ve quit," Keith Fulton said. "The jucos kept calling. Everybody was calling from around the country. We even had an offer from the Canadian Football League for him to sign a two-year contract. Guaranteed contract or no guaranteed contract, there’s no way he was doing that."
Fulton's family sent him bible verses and quotes about staying positive and strong. His parents encouraged him to finish what he started.
Former LSU athletic director Joe Alleva was impressed with how Fulton stayed engaged. After Fulton had served one year of the suspension, Alleva advocated for Fulton's suspension to be reduced. Fulton's family hired attorney Don Jackson, who specializes in NCAA legislation, to lead the appeal. It was initially rejected.
Fulton's team fought back, arguing that his violation wasn't tampering. They argued Fulton's violation should have been classified as a urine substitution, which carries a one-year suspension as opposed to the two-year suspension that tampering warrants. The NCAA agreed and granted Fulton immediate eligibility, allowing him to compete in the 2018 season.
"I’m so proud of the young man. It’s the ultimate story of competing," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said when Fulton was reinstated. "He practiced every day like he was a starter. He never blinked."
Fulton started 10 games for LSU as a junior before suffering a season-ending foot injury against Arkansas. An outstanding senior season in which Fulton registered 14 passes defended and an interception en route to a national championship while going against some of the best wide receivers in the country boosted his draft stock.
But he still had to explain the off-field situation to NFL teams. Clearly, Fulton made a bad mistake, but that didn't necessarily mean he was a bad person.
"Kristian was always a good kid," his mother, Michelle, said. "He never gave me any problems or got into any trouble. Kristian got scared and freaked out when all of this happened. Kids that have never been in trouble and don't know how to handle that type of stuff, they panic. It cost him. I would always tell my sons that actions have consequences."
The Titans took a deep dive into Fulton's background. They talked to sources at LSU who spoke highly of him. Titans GM Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel spoke to Fulton at the combine and on a virtual conference call before the draft. Naturally, the suspension came up.
"They just mainly wanted my perspective on the situation, and I was comfortable explaining that to them," Fulton said. "It wasn’t too big of a deal that they were worried about it. They understand that I was young and I made a mistake, and they understand that I learned from that mistake also."
Talking to Fulton helped Vrabel and the Titans' front office feel comfortable about adding him to their organization.
"I think there’s two types of people," Vrabel said. "There’s bad people and there’s good people that make mistakes. I think we’re all positive that Kristian is a good person that made a mistake. We feel strongly about his character -- the guy owned up to it and wanted to be honest about it."
Entering Day 2 of the draft, the Titans had a hunch that Fulton would be on the board. After they selected him at No. 61, Robinson received a reassuring message.
"I know a guy that was on the staff that coached him in high school who spoke highly of his character. He sent me a message and said, ‘You’ve got a great player, but you’ve got an even better person,'" Robinson said.
Proving he had matured after his suspension wasn't the only factor motivating Fulton. Former LSU defensive coordinator and current Baylor head coach Dave Aranda said Fulton had a loving and supportive family.
Fulton said he's driven to play for his parents, his brother Keith Jr. (who was a teammate at LSU) and anyone who looks up to him when they watch him play. Fulton's grandfather, Louis Fulton Jr., died before the draft due to complications from the coronavirus. Fulton says his grandfather has been watching over him and he has a special message for him.
"I feel like he was watching over me the whole time in the draft," Fulton told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after he was drafted. "He knew where I was going to be and he's going to travel with me whenever I go to Tennessee. I'll definitely pay my respects to him when I touch the field for sure. I love you. Rest in peace. Imma do it for you."