Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen celebrates with fans after a 35-16 win against Samford on November 19, 2011, in Auburn, Alabama. (AP Images)
My, how they adored him down on The Plains. Philip had hauled in the most famous pass of the 2010 season, when he ran a drag route in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl against Alabama and caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton. The score prompted a spontaneous dance from Philip, a jig Auburn fans quickly dubbed "The Lutzie." He danced like no one was watching, and that was the joy of watching it. Without "The Lutzie" that season, Cam Newton doesn't win the Heisman and Auburn doesn't capture the 2010 national championship.
But it was what he did off the field that really endeared Philip to every man and woman who flew a Tigers flag on the back of their pickup or on their front porch. He did things like take a girl with Down syndrome to her senior prom at Lassiter High in Marietta, Georgia, his alma mater. Things like introduce 10-year-old Evan Thomason to his teammates at the team hotel only 13 days before cancer took Evan's life. To the Auburn faithful, Philip was one of the more popular players. In 2012 he had more Twitter followers (over 42,000) than any other player on the team.
On this June morning, Philip was driving his green truck—he called it "Lady Hulk"—to a farm in west-central Georgia, where he was going to spend the afternoon and evening with a dozen other twentysomethings. On his way, according to his family members, he stopped to buy steaks for everyone at the farm. His family also believes he likely purchased a case of water, a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey.
By all accounts, he had not been a big drinker. "Philip wasn't perfect, and he would have fun, but he wasn't a crazy partier," says Brian Penter, who was Philip's roommate in Montgomery and a longtime friend. "I went out with Philip a lot and he generally just had a few beers."
"Philip did the typical college drinking," says his father, Mike, who back in 2014 was a vice president for a sports app startup. "It was never an issue."
Once on the farm, Philip and his buddies rode horses in the summer heat. Philip had never been on top of a horse before, and he Snapchatted a photo of himself acting like he was about to kiss one on the lips. It was typical Philip, wanting to share a moment of goofiness with those he loved most.
"Philip wasn't perfect, and he would have fun, but he wasn't a crazy partier."
— BRIAN PENTER, LUTZENKIRCHEN'S LONGTIME FRIEND
He also went mudding in a truck with his friends on the sprawling farm outside of LaGrange, Georgia. With a cellphone, a friend recorded Philip pushing the truck out of the mud, smiling big and bright, looking like he didn't have a care in the world.
The party raged on. Drinks were poured as the friends cooled off in the shade.
The afternoon darkened into evening. The steaks were cooked. The booze kept flowing. A bonfire was lit.
A sliver of moon rose into the clear, starlit sky. Saturday night, June 28, melted into Sunday morning, June 29.
And most everyone on the farm kept drinking…and drinking…and drinking.
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Zac Howell was a mess of nerves.
It was the spring of 2016, and the 24-year-old was about to hear Mike Lutzenkirchen speak to 300 students in Lee Hall on the campus of Mississippi State in Starkville.
Zac, a political science major, was the president of the Delta Chi fraternity. He had dozens of close friends on campus, but now he wanted to be alone.
When Zac was in fifth grade in Dixie, Mississippi, he was at a friend's house one Sunday morning when his mom suddenly appeared. "Something bad happened," she told Zac. "We need to go to the hospital."
The night before, Zac's father, Gretsch Howell, an elected constable and a sheriff's deputy, had attended a Valentine's Day party at an Elks Lodge in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with his wife, Gidget Howell, Zac's stepmother. There had been a lot of heavy drinking at the party. Around midnight the Howells—both legally intoxicated—slid into Gretsch's personal police cruiser. He flipped on the ignition.
It was raining as the patrol car sped down a dark two-lane highway. The party had taken place less than a mile from their house, but Gretsch failed to navigate a sharp curve at about 90 miles per hour. The cruiser veered off the slick road and slammed into a tree. Gretsch, who wasn't wearing his seatbelt, was thrown 30 feet out of the driver's side window but survived. Gidget, who was strapped into her seat belt, hit her head on the dashboard with such violence that she died from blunt force head trauma. The passenger's-side airbag had failed to deploy.
At the hospital Zac fell numb when he learned Gidget was gone. Zac's dad eventually was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison.
"I had to grow up very quickly," Zac says now. "I knew my dad was going to jail and I had to stay strong for my little brother. I never really talked about it. I had all these feelings that I didn't know how to express."
By himself last spring, his heart racing with anxiety, Zac entered the auditorium at Mississippi State.
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Philip Lutzenkirchen poses for a photo with a fan. (Courtesy of Mike Lutzenkirchen)
For hours and hours, Philip Lutzenkirchen and his friends drank at the farm. Around 2:40 a.m., according to one person who was there, Philip was standing outside talking to friends. Philip had long since put his car keys away—he had no intention of driving anywhere—but then the nearby headlights of a 2006 Chevy Tahoe suddenly came to life, the twin low beams shooting through the night.
Behind the wheel of the Tahoe was 22-year-old Joseph “Ian’’ Davis, a senior on the Georgia baseball team. Ian was going to make an early-morning run to a nearby gas station to purchase a tin of chewing tobacco. Philip climbed into the back seat directly behind him; Elizabeth Craig, 22, sat next to Philip and behind 20-year-old Christian Tanner Case, a student at Auburn who was in the front passenger's seat. Only Christian pulled on his seatbelt.
Around 3 a.m. surveillance video at the gas station, which was three miles from the farm, showed a male figure entering the door. Minutes later, he returned to the car and then the SUV disappeared into darkness.
Mike Lutzenkirchen imagines loud music pumping through the Tahoe's speakers, the windows down, and the four friends laughing as the 5,500-pound SUV roared along Upper Big Springs Road back toward the farm. It's a nice image, the four of them having one last carefree and footloose moment together on Earth.
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Rachel Kelly had never heard of Philip Lutzenkirchen before.
One evening this past March, Rachel walked side-by-side with a few friends across the campus of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A 19-year-old sophomore at Coe, Rachel took a seat inside Sinclair Auditorium for an event that featured someone named Mike Lutzenkirchen as the keynote speaker.
Rachel, a member of the track team, hadn't told her friends about the day five years earlier when a drunken driver killed her second cousin. She kept it to herself, because, well, how do you broach that subject in casual conversation? "Plus, I'm not an emotional person," she says. "It was just easier to avoid talking about it."
The Denver native had visited her 23-year-old cousin, Brooks Rogers, at his family's home in Tallahassee, Florida, only two weeks before he died. "His personality was so positive," Rachel says. "I remember him leaving the house with a few other cousins and we were all like, 'Bye, Brooks.' It was nonchalant. He just waved to us and smiled and then he left."
But then, the night before Halloween 2011, Brooks was the designated driver for a few of his friends as he steered his car on Tharpe Street in Tallahassee. At just after 2:30 a.m., a silver Infiniti crossed the centerline and hit Brooks' car head-on. Brooks—a senior at Florida State who loved traveling in Europe and planned to attend law school—died minutes later from head injuries.
The Infiniti's driver, 20-year-old Jordan Griffith, had a blood alcohol level of .173, more than twice the legal limit of .08. He later pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
"That was one of my first encounters with death and I couldn't really comprehend it," Rachel says now. "As the years went by I'd see pictures of Brooks and feel a definite sadness, but I never could really pinpoint all the feelings I had. What I didn't know was that I wasn't completely done with the mourning stage."
But then, on a gentle Midwestern night this past spring, Rachel sat down in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College and Mike Lutzenkirchen began to speak.
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Philip Lutzenkirchen reacts after an Auburn win against Mississippi State on Saturday, September 10, 2011, in Auburn, Alabama. (AP Images)
The posted speed limit on the two-lane highway in this part of Georgia was 55 mph. The Tahoe with Philip and his friends inside approached the T-intersection of Upper Big and Lower Big Springs Roads in Troup County a little after 3 a.m. It was as dark as blindness.
At a distance of 34 feet before the stop sign, a painted white "stop" line on the black asphalt of Upper Big Springs Road should have warned Ian, who was driving, about the upcoming stop sign and T-intersection. But the SUV charged through the stop sign, blazed across Lower Big Springs Road and then hurtled off the dry pavement at 77 mph, according to data contained in the car’s black box. No skid marks were found.
Mike doesn't like to think about what happened in these next few seconds to his only son, but he does. Thirteen feet after leaving the roadway, the Tahoe struck a ditch with its front end and lower carriage. The impact likely caused Philip's head to smash into the roof of the car.
The Tahoe stayed on its wheels for another 89 feet. The SUV then hit a shallow ravine parallel to a driveway that led to Big Springs Methodist Church. This time the car didn't stay on the ground; the Tahoe was launched into the night sky, traveling airborne for 42 feet.
It landed and rolled 41 feet, shedding parts and metal with every flip. The two unbuckled back-seat passengers—Philip and Elizabeth—were surely thrashed and tossed about with unimaginable force.
The Tahoe then hit a chain fence and rolled over and over and over for another 88 feet before coming to a smoking rest on its wheels. At some point during those final 88 feet, Philip, who was seated behind the driver, was ejected through the passenger’s-side back-seat window. He landed 15 feet from the car’s final stopping point. The coroner told Mike that Philip didn't suffer; his neck snapped, killing him instantly.
Ian, also not wearing his seatbelt in the driver’s seat, was partially ejected. He died from massive head trauma.
Elizabeth flew out of the rear passenger’s-side window. She suffered internal injuries, including a lacerated liver, but survived.
So did Christian, who was in the front passenger seat with his belt fastened. Wearing his swimsuit and his head bleeding, he ran to a nearby house, pounded on a door and pleaded for help.
The 911 call was received at 3:09 a.m. Flashing red-and-blue lights arrived on the scene at 3:50 a.m.—about 20 hours after Philip had left his apartment in Montgomery in the Lady Hulk for a weekend on the farm.
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