Learn From Lutz

One great catch made Philip Lutzenkirchen a hero. One bad decision killed him at 23. But the lessons of his tragic death in a drunken driving accident, detailed here for the first time, could save young people's lives for years to come

By Lars Anderson

illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

November 22, 2016

Bleacher Report

He was alone behind the wheel, cruising through the backwoods of Alabama in his Ford F-150 truck. On this blue-sky Saturday morning in the summer of 2014, life was oh so good for Philip Lutzenkirchen, the possibilities as endless as the ribbon of road that was now stretched out before him.   

The 23-year-old former Auburn tight end worked at a wealth management firm in Montgomery, Alabama. But that was only a day job. He also was a volunteer assistant high school football coach at Saint James School in Montgomery. Only a few days earlier Philip had told his father, Mike, that he planned to become a full-time coach.

"Have you called Coach [Gus] Malzahn at Auburn?" Mike asked.

"No, Dad," Philip replied. "I want to be a high school coach."

Football was the air Philip breathed. Between 2009 and '12 he had caught more touchdown passes at Auburn (14) than any tight end in school history, spawning the joke on campus that Lutzenkirchen—the player with the most letters in his first and last name (19) ever to don the Tigers jersey—was German for touchdown-maker.

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."


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.

✦ ✦ ✦

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.

✦ ✦ ✦

Image title

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.

✦ ✦ ✦

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.

✦ ✦ ✦

Image title

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.

✦ ✦ ✦

Philip Lutzenkirchen poses for a photo during Auburn's fan day in Auburn, Alabama, on August 12, 2012. (AP Images)

Four members of the Lutzenkirchen family—father Mike, mother Mary and daughters Amy and Ann—attended church at 8 a.m. that Sunday morning in their hometown of Marietta, Georgia. When they returned to their house, they found a note taped to the front door. It was instructions from a police officer for the family to call a number with a 706 area code: LaGrange, Georgia.

The Troup County coroner, whose daughter had attended Auburn with Philip, delivered the news to Mike. Standing outside on his back wooden deck, Mike dropped to his knees and yelled, "Philip's dead! Philip's dead!" His wife and two oldest daughters also then crumbled to the ground, Amy shrieking with the pain of the realization that her world as she had known it had just ended.

The Lutzenkirchens' youngest child, Abby, was a soccer player at the University of Alabama. She had just played in a semi-pro summer tournament and was now on a bus riding from Jacksonville, Florida, to Atlanta. Fearful that Abby would learn about Philip's fate on social media, Mike called her cell.

Philip was Abby's hero—he practically glowed in the dark to her—and when her dad told her that Philip had passed away, she screamed so loud that Mike still hears those guttural wails in his nightmares. Abby only remembers stumbling toward her coach; the rest of the day, mercifully, remains shrouded in a shock-induced fog.

Image title

Philip Lutzenkirchen (middle) poses for a photo with his family. (Courtesy of Mike Lutzenkirchen)

Friends quickly filled the Lutzenkirchen household, bringing food and sympathy. The three daughters spent that night in Philip's upstairs childhood bedroom—just as they would do almost every night for the following month. One wall is painted orange and has the Auburn logo on it. Another has Philip's framed No. 88 high school jersey hanging on it.

Sleep eluded Mike that first night. He rose from his bed around 6 a.m. and, in the early-morning darkness, went for a run through a nearby wooded area. Tears falling, straining for breath, Mike kept saying aloud, "Why? Why? Why?" Then he looked up at the towering oaks, maples and pines. He was focused on the leaves, framed by dawn's bright, white light, when he suddenly swore he could hear his son talking to him in a soothing voice.

It's going to be all right, Dad. You got this. It's going to be OK. You got this.

Mike, a spiritual man, drove to a coffee shop and feverishly began sketching out notes on napkins. He didn't realize it at the time, but the rest of his life had just begun.

✦ ✦ ✦

Four weeks after the funeral, Mary Lutzenkirchen, a nurse at a local hospital in Marietta, was in a patient's room when she looked up at the television screen. It was tuned to ESPN, and on the scroll it was being reported that Ian, the driver of the SUV on that fatal night, had registered a blood alcohol content of 0.17, which was twice the legal limit.

Then Philip’s mom saw the words on national television that nearly caused her to collapse: It said Philip’s blood alcohol content was .377, nearly five times the legal limit. According to Lifeloc Technologies, which designs portable breathalyzers, a person with a BAC in the range of .30 to .40 has "little comprehension of where you are. … Coma is possible. This is the level of surgical anesthesia. Death may occur."

After reading about her only son, Mary called her husband. "Did you see the news?" she asked. He had. In the middle of her shift, Mary, shaken, left work and drove home, the tears falling as if she was reliving the horror a second time.

For 48 hours, the family holed up in their house, not answering the phone calls from reporters. Mike wondered if he could still share Philip’s story with others. He had assumed Philip had been casually drinking and had simply forgotten to wear his seatbelt, but now it was clear his son was as impaired as anyone that night on the farm.

"Who am I to think I can get in front of a crowd and talk about Philip when his life ended like this?" Mike wondered aloud to Mary.

But then a few nights later, at three in the morning, Mike stirred awake in his bedroom. An idea had come to him. He woke up his wife. "My message can be, 'Live like Lutz, love like Lutz, learn from Lutz,'" he said to Mary.

In late September 2014—three months after his son's death—Mike drove to Athens, Georgia, to speak to the University of Georgia football team. Standing in the football auditorium, surrounded by the players, Mike looked into the crowd of young faces; it was as if he could see a little of his own son in each one.

"Who am I to think I can get in front of a crowd and talk about Philip when his life ended like this?"


"Philip made so many good decisions in his life, but there was a day he made some really bad choices and it cost him his life," Mike said. "Learn from Lutz. Learn from him and know that one bad decision is all it takes to lose everything."

Two days later Mike spoke to the football team at Clemson.

Word by word, sentence by sentence, the grieving father was finding his new voice.

✦ ✦ ✦

Zac Howell settled into his seat at Lee Hall on the Mississippi State campus. Mike Lutzenkirchen strode onto the stage and immediately said, "All I ask is that you pay attention, because what I say could save your life."

For 70 minutes, Mike spared no grisly detail from Philip's final night. He compared his son to Raggedy Ann as the Tahoe flipped through the Georgia darkness. In front of 400 students, Mike was overcome with emotion. He called his tears "liquid from the heart."

Zac cried, too. He thought of his stepmom, who had died in that drunken driving accident 13 years earlier, and of his dad, who had been released from prison after serving three years of an eight-year sentence.

Zac walked outside the auditorium. Images of his stepmom flashed so vividly in his mind. But then, something he didn't even know he wished for happened:

He was filled with a sense of peace.

"I'd never heard anyone talk as honestly as Mike about drunken driving," Zac says now. "Finally, someone was telling my story. I could relate to everything he was expressing. Mike relieved it all as he spoke. He was my voice that I always wanted to have. I went back to my fraternity with a feeling that, for the first time in my life, I could really be OK with everything."

Zac sent Mike an email later that night, sharing his own story. Mike called Zac two days later and these two strangers—separated by nearly three decades in age—spoke for more than two hours.

To this day, Zac and Mike stay in touch.

✦ ✦ ✦

Image title

The Auburn Tigers have a moment of silence for Philip Lutzenkirchen and David Langner before a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan Hare Stadium on August 30, 2014, in Auburn, Alabama. Langner passed away from cancer earlier that year. (Getty Images)

Rachel Kelly settled into her seat in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College. Next to her were two of her Alpha Omicron Pi sorority sisters.

At the start of Mike’s presentation, before he said a word, a video played highlights of Philip's career at Auburn, including catching the game-winning touchdown pass from Cam Newton in the 2010 Iron Bowl against Alabama. Several athletes in the crowd cheered as the grainy video flickered on the screen.

Microphone in hand, Mike stepped onto the stage. For 70 minutes, he held the 250 students spellbound as he re-created the last day of his son’s life. Rachel just sat there, silent, stone-faced—and thunderstruck.

Her thoughts kept running back to her cousin Brooks, killed five years earlier. After Mike's speech, Rachel walked out of the auditorium with her friends. For the first time in her life, she told the story of Brooks. "Guys, I had a relative who was killed in a drunken driving accident," Rachel began.

That night Rachel felt as close to those friends as anyone she'd met on campus. "It opened up our relationship," she says. Now at college parties, Rachel is the person "who sees a problem and tries to solve it," she says.

After hearing Mike speak, she sent him a long email describing her own tragedy. She told him that, moving forward, Philip would play an important role in her life—a reminder that one bad decision is all it takes to tear lives asunder.

To this day, Rachel and Mike stay in touch.

✦ ✦ ✦

Mike is standing in Philip’s childhood bedroom on the second floor of their Marietta home. It remains virtually untouched from the day Philip died. Some nights Mike will wander in here around midnight and gaze at old scrapbooks for hours, losing himself in the warm glow of memories.  

"It does get easier with time, it really does, but I can't stop speaking about Philip," he says. "It brings me closer to him each time I'm in front of young people. It makes me feel him again. And I know I'm helping people. I tell everyone drinking didn't cost Philip his life; bad decisions did. And I'm not trying to save one life. Philip was worth more than that. I'm trying to save a bunch of lives."

Mike, who quit his startup job shortly after Philip's death to start the Lutzie 43 Foundation, now drives across the country speaking about his son. So far he's given about 180 talks to over 55,000 high school and college students—and about 180 times, he's broken down. But it's his raw emotion that freights the speeches with so much power, why he receives dozens of emails each month from high school and college kids who have been moved by his message.

"Learn from Lutz. Learn from him and know that one bad decision is all it takes to lose everything."


"Mike changed my life," Zac says. "Now I'm constantly telling friends about the dangers of drinking and driving. It can happen to anyone. I truly believe Philip has saved lives by giving his own. I really do."

"I'm constantly giving out my number to friends who are going to parties, telling them to call me if they've had too much to drink," Rachel says. "Mike encouraged me to be a resource to people, and now I am."

On Saturday Auburn will play Alabama in the Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium—the same place Philip performed "The Lutzie" six autumns ago.

Mike and Mary, who plan to attend the game, have a routine for every time they return to Tuscaloosa. Hours before kickoff Mike will drive their Kia minivan down Bear Bryant Boulevard. As they approach the stadium, Mike will point to the southeastern corner. He will say in a booming voice, "That's where the big tight end scored the winning touchdown."

And just then, together, Philip's mom and dad will smile.

Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide and Carlisle vs. Army. Anderson, also an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, April, and their son, Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71

B/R Mag is an experimental, multiplatform digital sports magazine from Bleacher Report. It is a work in progress, and our growing team welcomes your feedback.

Follow the new B/R Mag stream on the Team Stream app and #BRMag on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.