Each new sunrise brings with it a change of script for Mike Lutzenkirchen. An update, really, that turns over in his head almost automatically, marking time against the worst day of his life.
“Philip passed away 255 days ago,” he said, beginning another talk on the promise and the death of his only son. This presentation Wednesday was particularly meaningful, back here where Philip Lutzenkirchen enjoyed his salad days after leaving Lassiter High to become a Tigers tight end.
His father continued: “That sounds like it’s a big number, but it’s not.”
It will be more than 260 days when Mike speaks to high-schoolers in Portland, Maine, next week and closer to 270 when he visits other students in Texas and California before the end of the month.
Still not a quite a year since the early morning of June 29, when a weekend in the country outside LaGrange turned tragic. Having spent the day drinking with friends, Philip clambered into a car with three of them to make a 3 a.m. run for snacks and a can of dip. Not wearing seat belts, the driver and Philip both were killed when the car barreled off a country road at more than 70 mph. The other two passengers survived.
And now, here is Philip’s father, making what has to be close to his 100th appearance, reliving in public the most private kind of pain.
“The accident report was very descriptive,” he tells this group of 2,000 or so Auburn students and town folk gathered inside the school’s absolutely hushed basketball arena Wednesday.
“It showed the path of the vehicle. This vehicle went 150 feet, rolling … Philip (who was sitting behind the driver) didn’t go out his window, he went out the passenger-side rear window … The report had a picture on it that we’ve all drawn as kids. It was a stick figure — straight body, round head, stick arm, stick legs. My son’s name is written atop it, 15 feet from the vehicle. With the term DOA (dead on arrival) underneath.”
Death brings changes
Here he was, at 52, his wife and three daughters in the audience watching as he once more took on the task of spelling out the legacy of a son who died before he could finish the work himself.
“It’s very hard to publicly grieve,” Mary Lutzenkirchen, Philip’s mother, said. “However, Philip’s life was very public.”
After one of these talks months ago, a father came up to Mike and uttered something common to these difficult kind of gatherings. Something you say when there’s nothing else to say: “If you can save only one life, then it will have been worth it.”
Hold it right there. “There’s no way in hell this is worth one life,” Mike Lutzenkirchen thought to himself. “I’m not giving my son up for one life. But if it’s one life at every school, and I get to all 17,000-plus high schools in this country and who knows how many colleges …” So, he hits the road and lays his heart bare for any group that will have him.
There is a speaker’s fee. It goes to the Lutz 43 Foundation, begun by Philip’s family with the idea of promoting both the positive ideals of his life and of warning against the decision-making that ultimately ended it. They are attempting to build an interactive course that would involve students and their parents/teachers/coaches. Forty-three lessons in all, in line with the number Philip wore at Auburn. Add to that the incentive of a scholarship program.
For 15 years of his working life, Mike was with IBM, quitting in 2010. He since has launched a start-up designed to help athletic programs raise funds. He is adamant about not taking a salary out of the foundation.
Priorities were all rearranged that summer Sunday morning when he, his wife and two of their daughters returned to their Marietta home after attending mass. There was a note on his door from the Cobb police to call a number with a 706 area code — a LaGrange number.
Word of Philip’s death spread quickly. Playing for the Tigers from 2009-12, he was one of faces of Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship. He was more than the 14 career touchdown receptions — most notable of all a 7-yarder that helped turn the tide against Alabama in 2010. With his openness and oversized personality, Philip was always that player Auburn took to SEC Media Day or to the pregame pressers to represent the team.
Before the day was done, Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs had made it to the Lutzenkirchen’s front door. As had family friend and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. Philip had made himself important to a wide array of people. He donated so much of his time to the foundation of former Braves pitcher Tim Hudson and his wife, Kim, (who make their home in Auburn) that they had become fast friends. In fact, a year ago Philip was in Arizona, spending time with Hudson at San Francisco’s camp.
There was one more hammer blow to come, weeks later when the coroner reported that Philip’s blood-alcohol level was four times higher than the legal limit.
Never mind that he wasn’t driving, it still was a number that devastated his family. And when some took shots at Philip’s character online, Mike’s youngest daughter called him in tears.
“You can’t read that stuff because that’s not who your brother was,” Mike reminded her.
Before that day, the working motto for the Foundation was: “Live like Lutz. Love like Lutz. Lead like Lutz.”
After that, it became: “Live like Lutz. Love like Lutz. Learn from Lutz.”
The message had crystallized.
Mike had to give a fully three-dimensional view of his son.
He found his calling
There was so much in his 23 years to celebrate. Preceding Wednesday’s speech at Auburn was a short video showing Philip in action on the field and off — and he was as entertaining to behold in either venue.
He was the guy who showed up to a team Halloween party dressed up like Woody in “Toy Story.” He was the only player who could get away with calling coach Gus Malzahn “Big Guy.”
Oh, how CBS’ Verne Lundquist loved to call his name. You almost could see him smile every time he got to say “Lutzenkirchen!”
His senior season at Auburn was shortened by injury, and his NFL experience was condensed to one training camp in St. Louis.
“When he was injured, you saw how that affected him and affected the team, you could tell he was someone everybody looked up to,” said Jeremy Roberts, an associate AD for operations at Auburn.
Philip had found post-playing work with a financial firm in Montgomery, Ala. Shortly before he died, he lined up a volunteer coaching position at a high school there. He told his father he had found his calling: To coach football.
He was not just another example of what happens when reason is clouded by drink. He was a fun-loving, big-hearted young man, too. The last photo Philip sent his father was from the farm where he spent that weekend, posing face to face with a horse. “He looked like he was going to kiss it,” Mike joked.
“Essentially Philip lived a life that we wished all of our sons would live,” said Kim Hudson, who now is on the board of the Lutz 43 Foundation. “His values were second to none. He was one of the most wise people his age. But with the last 24 hours of his life, he made some bad choices that led to a tragedy.”
And in his last moments, there live other lessons, the ones that continue to bring home each of Mike Lutzenkirchen’s talks.
Take your pick: Don’t drink to such excess that all judgment is overwhelmed; have a plan for your nights out; use a seat belt; drive with some respect for the limits.
“There are a lot of things for me to be bitter and disappointed about,” Mike said. “But if you really want to know what I’m disappointed about, it’s that Phillip and his friends didn’t look out for each other that day.”
So, he replays over and over the most beautiful and most heartbreaking of memories for strangers, choking up at some point at nearly every telling.
Why? How can you continue to cut this vein and bleed on command parents ask Mike all the time.
“It’s simple,” he said.
“Either you live in a hole or you climb out of it. I haven’t earned the right yet to sit next to my son one day and understand why at 23 this happened. So I’m fighting like hell for that right to sit with him.
“I’m selfish that way.”