The father of late Auburn TE Philip Lutzenkirchen is on a mission: Honor his late son by saving lives
Mike Lutzenkirchen pulled his car into the drive-thru to get his morning coffee and answered a phone call on his hands-free bluetooth device. Before he could engage in conversation, Lutzenkirchen politely apologized to the out-of-town reporter on the other end so that he could put his coffee order in.
“Medium hot coffee, cream, one Splenda, please.”
That’s as much as Lutzenkirchen will handle at once while operating a vehicle. At that moment, Lutzenkirchen was fueling up for a road trip to Sylacauga, Alabama, where he was set to host the Lutzie 43 Foundation’s annual golf outing. It’s the non-profit organization that he started nearly 7 years ago after his son, former Auburn tight end and 2010 Iron Bowl hero Philip Lutzenkirchen, was killed as a passenger in a reckless driving accident at age 23.
On this particular day, Mike Lutzenkirchen knew that the hour-long conversation was going to dig into the toughest memory of his life, but also, it was going to dig into the cross-country mission to save lives it set in motion.
“So Connor, how are you today?” Lutzenkirchen asked after paying for his coffee.
For the most part, Lutzenkirchen said he moved past the breakdowns he used to have. He’s had plenty of practice in that department.
For the last 7 years, Lutzenkirchen spoke to hundreds of high schools, colleges and associations all about “43 Key Seconds.” The focus is simple — before operating a vehicle, take 43 seconds to complete a safe driving checklist. Do you have a clear head? Do you have clear hands? Do you have clear eyes? Is your seatbelt on?
Everywhere he speaks, Lutzenkirchen passes out lanyards complete with that checklist, as well as a key (in Auburn blue and orange) that reads “43 Key Seconds.” The 43 was the number his son, Philip, wore as a 2-time captain and record-setting tight end at Auburn. Now, Mike Lutzenkirchen wants the number 43 to be synonymous with putting an end to distracted driving.
There were times when he made the occasional exception to deviate from Auburn colors, like when Dabo Swinney, who recruited Lutzenkirchen, got Clemson-colored lanyards. Swinney did a public service announcement and talked about it on his weekly radio show. Lutzenkirchen got Nick Saban to attend the foundation’s first annual golf event.
But whether he’s spreading awareness for 43 Key Seconds via a high-profile college coach or speaking in front of a group of high school students, Lutzenkirchen’s goal is the same.
Do everything in his power to prevent another person from experiencing his pain.
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There’s something that might catch listeners of Lutzenkirchen off guard. When he speaks, he doesn’t shuffle past the circumstances surrounding Philip’s death.
“My message, very early on, was always gonna be clear. I was not gonna hold any punches about sharing the elements of what I learned about Philip’s weekend,” Lutzenkirchen said.
As Lutzenkirchen said, Philip’s weekend started with an invite from friends to go to a farm in West Georgia. Philip was told to bring whatever food and drinks he wanted for the trip. He bought some steaks with some of the “NFL money that was burning a hole in his pocket,” as well as a case of beer, and as Lutzenkirchen later speculated, some form of hard alcohol.
One of Philip’s friends was Joseph “Ian’’ Davis, a senior on the Georgia baseball team. Around 2:40 a.m. that Sunday morning, Davis drove to a local gas station to get a can of chewing tobacco. Lutzenkirchen and 2 other passengers, Elizabeth Craig and Christian Tanner Chase, joined Davis in the 2006 Chevy Tahoe. Driving back from the trip on a 2-lane highway, Davis went through a stop sign at a T-intersection and went off the pavement at 77 MPH and lost control of the vehicle. The 1-vehicle crash included several flips and ultimately, it killed Philip and Davis while the 2 other passengers survived with injuries.
Christian was the only one in the vehicle who wore a seatbelt.
That Sunday morning, June 29, 2014, Mike Lutzenkirchen returned to the family’s Marietta, Ga., home after church with his wife, Mary, and daughters Amy and Ann (their other daughter Abby was away at a soccer tournament in Jacksonville). He found a post-it note on the door with instructions from a police offer to call the Troup County coroner, who delivered the unthinkable news; Philip was dead.
Mike Lutzenkirchen doesn’t like to relive the initial aftermath of that day — the shock, the tears, the phone calls.
A sleepless night was followed by a 6 a.m. walk/run through a local trail near the Lutzenkirchen’s house. A moment of clarity fueled the next chapter of his life.
“I think I was screaming. I know I was crying. I wasn’t known to cry,” Lutzenkirchen said. “God was right there with me … it’s as if God was looking at me and there was Philip with his big smile, and Philip said, ‘Dad, it’s gonna be alright.’ And I remember being like, ‘What do you mean it’s gonna be alright? What did you do?’
“And I remember God being like, ‘What do you do with this?’”
At that moment, Lutzenkirchen went to a local Starbucks and wrote down all the words that described Philip’s character on brown napkins. He had been a 2-time representative at SEC Media Days, and his impact in the local community was one of the reasons he became a beloved Auburn player. His fun-loving nature was best captured with the way he celebrated his go-ahead touchdown in the 2010 Iron Bowl, AKA “The Cam-back.” Philip’s spontaneous dance move in the Alabama end zone quickly became known as “The Lutzie.”
10 years ago today
Down 24-0, Auburn storms back to beat Alabama 28-27 courtesy of Cam Newton, Emory Blake and the Lutzie. (Video via SEC Network)
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) November 26, 2020
After he ignored frantic calls and texts from his wife and daughters, Lutzenkirchen returned home from Starbucks with napkins and perhaps an initial idea to honor his late son. A week later, one of Lutzenkirchen’s daughters asked the question that he couldn’t escape.
“What are you gonna do with this?”
A month after Philip’s death, Lutzenkirchen got a call from a high school football coach. He wanted Lutzenkirchen to come speak to his team after he found out that half of his players drank underage at a party over the weekend.
Alcohol, as Lutzenkirchen learned, played a significant part in the events that led to Philip’s death. Four weeks after Philip’s funeral, the family found out that the driver of the vehicle, Davis, registered a blood alcohol content of .17, which was more than twice the legal limit. They also found out that Philip’s blood alcohol content was .377.
Lutzenkirchen didn’t hold onto blame for Davis. When he began speaking about Philip’s death, Lutzenkirchen made sure to say that while he wasn’t a particularly heavy drinker, “he’s a sinner like all of us.” Lutzenkirchen’s only wish was that someone had hidden the keys to the vehicle for the whole weekend.
Decision-making became the forefront of his campaign. Due to the high-profile nature of Philip’s death, Lutzenkirchen began getting more and more speaking opportunities.
By mid-September of 2014, he had already spoken to Mark Richt’s team at Georgia, as well as Swinney’s team at Clemson. Lutzenkirchen already had relationships with some college coaches like Swinney, who recruited Philip. That November, Lutzenkirchen got non-profit status.
Lutzie 43 Foundation was official.
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This past year was atypical for Lutzenkirchen. The pandemic prevented him from speaking in person to large groups. He’d rather be in person to speak about 43 Key Seconds than doing so on a Zoom call. Lutzenkirchen still took requests from organizations like the Kansas Department of Transportation, which reached out to him to be their keynote speaker at their awards luncheon in front of roughly 30 people on Zoom.
He shifted to fundraising in the last year, and in hindsight, he said, it was nice to get a break from traveling. In the first 2 years, he didn’t want to do a fundraising event. But as he learned after transitioning from working for a sports app startup, sustaining a non-profit requires that.
Lutzenkirchen goes where he’s needed. One time, he did a segment on the SEC’s Sirius XM radio show with Peter Burns and Chris Doering to raise awareness for Lutzie 43 Foundation. That led to a call from a man in rural Wyoming, who heard the segment and wanted Lutzenkirchen to come out to speak to his organization and a few local high schools.
With the worst of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, Lutzenkirchen said he’s looking forward to getting back to experiences like that. There’s something about connecting with an audience and speaking individually to people afterward that resonates in a different way.
Speaking about Philip also helped him with his grief. Each speaking opportunity starts out with a video that provides context on who Philip was, and why he made such an impact on and off the field at Auburn. In the first couple of years, Lutzenkirchen couldn’t get through it without shedding a tear. Now, though, he watches it with pride.
In addition to speaking about 43 Key Seconds in public, Lutzenkirchen fields phone calls roughly once every 2 weeks from parents dealing with the loss of a child. He has no problem sharing insights from his personal experience, but there’s one thing he’ll never say in those calls.
“I know what you’re going through.”
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The last question that Lutzenkirchen received at the end of the hour-long conversation was one that he admittedly didn’t have an answer to — were there specific plans to celebrate Philip’s 30th birthday?
Philip would’ve turned 30 on June 1, 2021. In between calls, texts and emails that day, Lutzenkirchen said that the family would find some way to honor Philip. Lutzenkirchen anticipated that, for whatever reason, there was something about the 30th that would make it even more difficult than his other birthdays. That’s often when he finds himself asking those unanswerable questions about Philip.
Would he be coaching? Would he be married? Would he have kids?
On Philip’s first birthday after his death, in 2015, Lutzenkirchen struggled with what to do. After crying for most of the day, he decided to invite family and close friends to come to their house to celebrate Philip’s life. Lutzenkirchen went to Publix and picked out a cake. He asked the woman working behind the counter if she could write the words “happy first birthday in Heaven.” She looked at Lutzenkirchen and began to cry. Pretty soon, they were both crying together. Her tears even fell on to the cake. “I could care less,” Lutzenkirchen said.
June is always an especially emotional month for Lutzenkirchen and his family. It starts with Philip’s birthday, and it ends with the anniversary of his death. In that, Lutzenkirchen finds peace.
“I’ve always lived this way with my kids,” Lutzenkirchen said, “life is a rainbow.”
To the far left of the rainbow is the worst place you can be in any situation. To the far right, however, is nirvana. It’s the best place you can ever be.
“I got to that bad end when I lost my son,” Lutzenkirchen said. “But I am so much closer to that far right end every day because of Philip, because of what we’re doing.”