LAVERGNE, Tenn. — Princeton Fant still can remember when he fell in love with football, at the 5-yard line, 5 seconds left, when at 5 years old he made a game-saving tackle in a little league championship game.
“Ever since I made that first big hit, I knew I loved it and loved the game,” Fant said during his in-home interview with SEC Country last Tuesday night. “That passion stuck with me all the way through middle school and all the way through high school.”
Fant’s mother, Beverly, said she knew her son was special from the first time she laid eyes on him after giving birth, and he was just as special on the gridiron.
“I looked over after he was born, and his hands and his feet were so big, I knew there was going to be something to that,” Beverly said with a chuckle. “Then he was playing little league football, and they called him ‘the beast.’ We knew there was something special about him, and Princeton has always put his heart and soul into everything he is doing.
“He has always been dedicated to football, and he has always had a passion for it.”
That passion held true for Fant, even through two knee injuries and the surgeries that followed, each threats to his life-long dream of playing football for the Tennessee Vols.
“But as a freshman and sophomore, Princeton was healthy, and that had got him on everyone’s radar, because all of his physical attributes and talents were just off the charts,” LaVergne coach Stanton Stevens said. “He’s a kid who has all the potential in the world.”
Fant remembers his first medical setback, the spring of his sophomore year. While running a post route in a 7-on-7 practice, he “felt something funny” as he planted to cut.
Suddenly, all that potential went out the window, and Fant felt fear like never before.
“At first I was confused, and the next thing I knew, I couldn’t walk,” Fant said. “There was so much pain.”
An MRI revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), and Stevens informed Fant he would be sitting out his junior football season.
“I was thinking I might not be able to play again,” Fant said, “but then I thought, ‘God has me, I just have to stay focused and keep my head on right.’”
Fant remembers his knee being as big as a “volleyball” after that surgery in May of 2015, but he stuck with his rehabilitation and was on pace to play his senior season.
Meanwhile, Tennessee — along with Ole Miss, Miami, LSU, Louisville and Vanderbilt — kept its offer on the table, and Fant was one of eight players to commit on the now-historic ‘Orange Carpet Day’ haul last June 18.
“That day was a special day, all us recruits walked in and it was a celebration,” Fant said. “The DJ was playing music, the place was all hyped up.
“I talked to a lot of those guys, and they said there’s no place like Tennessee. The way the fans take you in, and the players and coaches show you love.”
What was not to love?
Fant, at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, was benching more than 300 pounds, squatting 485 and he had tested out with a 37-inch vertical jump and a 4.6-second 40-yard dash.
Fant couldn’t wait to show Tennessee fans what they were getting his senior season.
Fant entered his senior season with only 14 career catches, but he knew he was a sure bet to get more, having spent the summer and fall camp competing with fellow Tennessee commitment and LaVergne teammate Maleik Gray.
“Princeton is one of the most physical receivers you’ll see,” Gray said. “He’s also a smooth route runner.”
All systems were go for Fant to help Gray lead LaVergne in 2016.
“It had felt good, we had been through 7-on-7 in the spring, and I was jumping up catching balls and just dominating,” Fant said. “Looking back, my knee had already been kinda loose, just a little bit, and I think I had been playing on kind of a torn ACL.”
Fant started and played the first three games of the season for the Wolverines before re-injuring his knee.
“I was going to make a play on defense, and the ball carrier had cut back, and I tried to cut with him,” Fant said. “My leg gave out on me. I was like ‘Oh my goodness, what happened.’”
Fant, however, knew all too well what happened. Reflecting back, he said, “it was hard knowing” what was ahead.
Worse yet, Fant couldn’t escape the gnawing feeling in his stomach that, this time, Tennessee coach Butch Jones was going to have to pull his scholarship offer.
“I thought everything was over,” Fant said. “I thought Tennessee would give up on me after a second knee injury.”
The Vols were and are in dire need of immediate contributors in their receiving corps, and there’s no guarantee Fant can get back from his second knee surgery (Oct. 20) in time to get on the field for the 2017 season.
Fant headed to Knoxville on Sept. 24, as scheduled, to take in Tennessee’s rivalry game against Florida on an official visit.
“Coach Jones called me into his office,” Fant said. “Him and coach (Zach) Azzanni were there and said, ‘we still love you, and we’re here for you, even though you’ve had those two ACL injuries. We want you at Tennessee.
“There was a lot of stress relief, because I thought everything would be over. But I believe God had a plan for my life, and Tennessee is a big part of that.”
Jones, while discussing the 2017 signing class, used the term “5-star heart” on more than one occasion, referencing the priority he and his staff have placed on the character and dedication of the players selected for the Tennessee program.
Fant knows he still has work to do before reporting to UT at the end of May, both getting his knee up to 100 percent, as well as making sure he has all of his academics in place. He’s technically a “blue shirt,” meaning that his scholarship will be counted toward the 2018 class.
But the fact that he has an opportunity to wear orange at all has his mother counting her blessings.
“I had wondered if he would still play for Tennessee and if they would still want him on the team, but I knew all along that Tennessee is a family-oriented program, and Coach Jones is a very dedicated man to his players,” Beverly Fant said. “Coach Jones is all about family, and that’s what I have liked about him. I could feel the love myself when I went to Orange Carpet Day. I thought ‘this is where my son needs to be.’”
Western Kentucky would have been the easy choice for Fant, as his father was an athlete who still lives near the school in Bowling Green, and he has two cousins who played football and basketball for the Hilltoppers.
“They did push,” Princeton Fant said. “But I’ve just always had Tennessee in my heart.”
And what a heart he has always had.
“When Princeton was 7 years old, I remember being in bed when he brought me the phone,” Beverly Fant said. “He had been watching television and seen one of those save the children commercials, and he called in. The operator told him he had to have an adult approve it.”
Beverly and Princeton laughed at the memory.
“Remember Princeton, we had that picture of the child you sponsored on the refrigerator,” Beverly said, “and you said, ‘That’s my boy.’
“And that’s who Princeton is.”
Tennessee WR signee Princeton Fant does home interview on Facebook Live
Posted by Tennessee Volunteers Insiders on Tuesday, March 14, 2017