AUBURN — Toomer’s Corner has always been a gathering place for Auburn fans to celebrate the successes of the Tigers’ athletic program. Today, it was a place to celebrate the life of Philip Lutzenkirchen.
A former tight end for the Tigers and one of the most popular Auburn players in recent history, Lutzenkirchen died in a one-vehicle wreck early Sunday morning outside of LaGrange, Ga.
He was 23.
Gene Chizik’s time as Auburn’s coach from 2009-12 coincided with Lutzenkirchen’s four years at the school. In a statement released by Auburn University, Chizik called Lutzenkirchen the type of person “every parent aspires their son to be.”
“He was compassionate, determined, honorable and full of love, integrity and respect. In 27 years of coaching, I have come across what I would consider to be a few ‘rare’ young men. Phillip was certainly one of those ‘rare’ ones,” Chizik's statement read. “He truly, lived his life for other people and always found time to give to others. His family values taught him to be a great friend and teammate of everyone he came in contact with. … We should all begin by honoring his life because he lived a life worthy of that. In his 23 short years, he has certainly left an impactful legacy to everyone he touched. I will miss him deeply.”
The wreck occurred in Troup County, just southeast of LaGrange, at about 3:06 a.m. Sunday, according to Master Trooper B.N. Talley of the Georgia State Patrol, who responded to the scene.
“It happened at the intersection of Upper Big Springs Road and Lower Big Springs Road,” Talley said. “The vehicle was a 2006 Chevy Tahoe and the driver missed a stop sign at the intersection of those two roads, which is more or less a T-intersection. They traveled through the intersection off into a churchyard. They were out of control for about 450 feet.”
Talley said that at that point the vehicle overturned, flipping several times and ejecting three of the four passengers.
“Philip was one of them,” Talley said, "and he was killed at the scene.”
The driver of the vehicle, Joseph Davis, was also killed. According to a police report, blood was drawn from Davis “to determine if alcohol impairment was a contributing factor” in the accident.
Lutzenkirchen, who was seated behind Davis, was not wearing his seat belt. Talley said they “are still looking into” how fast the vehicle was traveling when it ran through the stop sign.
The other person killed in the wreck was Davis, 22, who went by his middle name, “Ian.” Davis, a catcher, tried out for the Georgia baseball team last fall during open tryouts. He did not make the team, however, getting cut when the Bulldogs had to set their final roster at the end of fall practice.
Lutzenkirchen caught 59 passes for 628 yards and 14 touchdowns in his career. His 14 touchdowns are the most in school history for a tight end, while his seven scores in 2011 set a single-season school record for the position.
But it is the pass he caught from Cam Newton in the 2010 Iron Bowl that fans remember the most. It capped a furious rally from 24 points down as the Tigers upended rival Alabama.
“I’m deeply saddened by the untimely passing of Philip Lutzenkirchen. He was a great young man who touched the lives of everyone he knew in a positive way,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said in a statement released by the school. “On the field, Philip was a great player and competitor, but more importantly, he was a great teammate and friend off the field. My thoughts and prayers are with Philip’s parents, Mike and Mary, and all of his family and friends who are grieving his passing.”
Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs also extended his condolences.
“Philip’s death is a devastating tragedy for his family, the Auburn family and his countless friends. Today is also a profoundly sad day for the Auburn Athletics family, who loved and respected Philip not only as a great player but more importantly as a friend and the epitome of an Auburn man,” Jacobs said in a university statement. “I came to know Philip well and I admired everything about who he was and the way he lived his life. He had a strong faith, a big heart and a burning desire to help others.”
Lutzenkirchen’s passing reached the NFL as well. After Lutzenkirchen’s career at Auburn came to an abrupt end in 2012 due to a hip injury, he entered the NFL, signing with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent last year. He was released by the team in August.
But his death hit particularly close to home for Rams general manager Les Snead, who played tight end at Auburn in the 1990s and was a member of the Tigers’ undefeated team in 1993.
“During his brief time with the Rams, Philip was a consummate pro,” Snead said in a statement. “On behalf of the St. Louis Rams organization, we would like to send our condolences to his family. As an Auburn alum myself and with (St. Louis head) Coach (Jeff) Fisher’s ties to the university through his son Trent and daughter Tara, we join the Tigers in grieving this tragic loss.”
After being cut by the Rams, Lutzenkirchen returned to Alabama, where he had been working at a wealth management company in Montgomery. In May, he began lending his services as a volunteer assistant coach at St. James School in Montgomery.
“They’re running what (Gus) Malzahn runs, so I’m helping out with the tight ends and fullbacks,” Lutzenkirchen told AL.com earlier this month. “It’s good, I’m really enjoying it. We have a great group of kids at St. James. There’s not a whole lot to do in Montgomery and I wanted to get back involved with sports.”
One of the players he had been working with — tight end Jalen Harris, a prospect in the Class of 2015 — committed to Auburn on Tuesday.
Sunday afternoon, Harris took to his Instagram account, posting a picture he had taken with Lutzenkirchen after giving his commitment on Tuesday. Alongside the picture, Harris provided a message, giving insight on all the things Lutzenkirchen had taught him, whether it was football, life or just “being a man.”
“These past couple of months have just been a blessing, it’s like God sent me an angel and now you can really watch over me. I will do everything in my ability to carry on your legacy on and off the field,” Harris’ post read. “Just thank you for everything from being my coach, mentor, and a brother to me. It’s killing me right now knowing you’re gone, but (I) will push through because I now that is what you would want. Thank you again coach, everything. You are the definition of a true ‘Auburn Man.’ There are not too many people like you in the world. You are my hero and I love you.”