KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said fifth-year senior tight end Brad Cottam will play Saturday against Arkansas, even though he was hoping for a medical redshirt for the season.
Fulmer was faced with the tough decision of whether to try to get Cottam, who broke his left wrist in the preseason, into as many of the No. 22 Vols' remaining games or sit him out in hopes of a successful appeal to the NCAA.
Fulmer had been pressing NCAA officials to indicate whether they might give Cottam special consideration for an unprecedented sixth season of eligibility but had not heard anything from them by Tuesday.
"We had no choice but to make a decision. We're playing for a championship here in the next several weeks. Brad was ready, and we were ready," Fulmer said after practice on Wednesday.
The NCAA allows some players a sixth year of eligibility if they have missed two or more full seasons with injuries but typically doesn't approve requests for players who have taken a non-medical redshirt season, as Cottam has done.
"To me, if the NCAA were truly student-athlete friendly, they would look at each one of these situations by individuals," Fulmer said. "Because of the different things he's had to deal with, his career's been limited. He lost all or parts of different years that he's been here."
A message left with the NCAA by The Associated Press was not immediately returned.
Cottam was highly touted as a recruit but took a redshirt after he did not play as a true freshman in 2003, when the Vols' roster was stacked with sophomores and a senior at tight end.
Since then, the Germantown native has suffered injury after injury, was involved in a car wreck and has undergone five surgeries. He played a limited number of snaps in 2005 and hasn't played at all this season after needing surgery to repair his left wrist, broken in preseason camp.
Cottam returned to practice this week after doctors said he could play with a cast on his healing wrist. Cottam said his life finally feels normal again with his return to the practice field.
"I always knew it was a long shot," he said. "If I would have been able to get it, I would have taken it. But there comes a point where you've got to say, 'I got to play if I can.'"
Cottam said he wasn't sure how much he would be able to play initially with only a few practices under his belt.
"Actually I thought [Tuesday] afternoon it didn't take as long as I thought it would," he said. "We'll just have to see at this point."
Fulmer petitioned Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive to help him with Cottam's cause. Fulmer said Slive told him the documentation the Tennessee athletic department put together for him was strong but added that Slive didn't seem confident the NCAA would grant the waiver.
Compare Cottam's case to that of Antonio Gaines, a fifth-year senior who took a medical redshirt in 2003 after needing shoulder surgery to repair an injury suffered in high school. Gaines tore a knee ligament against Southern Mississippi, the Vols' second game this season, and Tennessee also requested a sixth season for him.
"Antonio Gaines will get his year back. That's cut and dry," Fulmer said.
The NCAA football issues committee has proposed extending player eligibility in the sport to five years, an idea NCAA president Myles Brand has said he could support if it would include the elimination of redshirting. The idea would have to go through several NCAA committees before a membership vote.
Fulmer said adding a standard fifth year might help in situations such as Cottam's, but in the meantime he knows there's not much he can do.
"It is what it is right now," he said.