When Chris Cullen walked off the field at the SEC Tournament, he knew his college career was over.
The Gamecocks had just lost to LSU to bow out of the tournament and with no NCAA Tournament on the horizon, reality was setting in that Cullen’s time in Columbia was over.
It was a tumultuous four years for Cullen, who fought injuries for the better part of his entire career, and almost forgot what it was like to play completely healthy.
“It’s definitely frustrating. I feel like my entire career here I’ve been injured in some way,” Cullen told GamecockCentral. “It’s been frustrating to me mentally but I’ve been trying to not look too far into it and not stress about things I shouldn’t stress about. I’ve enjoyed my whole career here. I have no regrets, I’ve enjoyed everyone I’ve come into contact with, the players I’ve played with, the coaches I’ve been around.”
Cullen came to school as a top 500 prospect out of Georgia, forgoing the pros after being taken in the 38th round by Oakland.
He had an All-Freshman season in 2016, hitting .238 with 23 RBI starting at catcher, but that’s when the injuries started to take their toll.
Near the end of his sophomore year, Cullen had season-ending knee surgery to remove cartilage that had been bugging him the 2017 season.
Coming into his junior season, he felt healthy and ready to go before a bulging disc, hindered him for the rest of his career.
It’s something that hung over his head as he finished his senior season, limiting Cullen in what he could do offensively.
“I’ve had a bit of a back injury that’s been kind of tough to play through,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can to help the team out and contribute however I can; whether that’s laying down sac bunts or making plays in the field or being a great teammate in the dugout supporting everyone. I feel like I’ve done not as much as I hoped to do but I feel like I’m contributing in ways my teammates appreciate.”
Not wanting his career to be over, he made some changes that prolonged his season and kept him in the lineup.
Instead of catching, Cullen moved to first base and started there 51 times, hitting .206/.281/.354, tying his career highs in home runs (5) and RBI (23) as a senior.
He did it all fighting through that hampering back injury that started flaring up last postseason and persisted into the fall and spring.
“I reaggravated it late in the fall and it’s been kind of lingering from there,” Cullen said. “I’ve done a pretty good job managing it; I’ve been able to play quite a few games this year with it, but it’s just a daily process getting treatment, going out there and wanting to play baseball.”
In sports, playing injured is something that comes with the territory, but Cullen’s become far too accustomed to that.
When players typically battle injuries the majority of their career, a lot of what-ifs can pop into their heads, but that hasn’t happened for the Gamecocks’ first baseman.
He admits he still wants to play professionally, but if it doesn’t happen, Cullen doesn’t have a regret or second thought about his career at South Carolina.
“Chris Cullen gave us everything he had this year,” Mark Kingston said. “He’s battled a back injury this year and has played very good defense at first base for this year. He’s done the best he can with his back offensively.”