June 29th, 2014.
According to calendars, this day, Sunday, June 29th, would begin a week of quiet and stillness at Lassiter High School. Conversation and coaching would cease, the halls would quiet, the locker rooms empty, and the fields would be temporarily abandoned as Georgia high school sports took a required weeklong break.
While Lassiter's current athletes and coaches did take that break from the X's and O's, memories of one special player from the past came alive. Those surrounding Philip Lutzenkirchen's years as a teenaged-Trojan returned to the place that helped build the notable person he became.
As we've all learned, life is a complex combination of the planned and the unexpected. In this case, what no one saw coming took a turn for the worse.
A little after 3am that Sunday, many calendars were abandoned and plans changed as the unexpected wrought shock, sadness and question among the families and friends of two young lives lost. A tragic single car accident in LaGrange, Georgia took the lives of 23-year-old Philip and 22-year-old Ian Davis.
Philip's name gained national attention while playing football for the Auburn Tigers. A key member of the 2010 national championship squad, "The Catch" the tight end made against Alabama, which secured the Tigers national title run, will forever replay in the minds of college football fans watching that night.
But before life in blue and orange, there was Lassiter High School in Cobb County, Georgia, where it all began. There was an incredibly strong and supportive family that brought Philip into the world and helped him grow. And there was a tight-knit community cheering him on all along the way.
On Wednesday, July 2nd, what was thought would be the scene at Lassiter a week prior: a quiet, vacated set of fields and buildings, changed completely. Family, friends and fans, new and old, gathered in remembrance of one of their favorites.
The school's massive parking lots filled the way they would on a late fall playoff Friday night. Only in this circumstance, Alabama license plates were there in abundance, Auburn flags waving in the wind on car roofs. Thousands poured into "The Frank", claiming every seat in the stadium. Within the hours ahead, those who had adored Philip from near and from afar were given a taste of his roots, a glimpse into the foundation that nurtured him.
A span of generations gathered. Lassiter's newest teammates, clad in gold and maroon, handed out programs at the entrance gate, parents distributed candles; college friends and longtime diehard Tigers fans joined each other for a singular, uniting purpose.
The sun began to set in a clear, surprisingly cool, summer night sky. Two large posters rested against a podium that sat on the Trojans' 50 yard line: one of Philip wearing #13 as a burgeoning Friday night star; the other, of Auburn's fall Saturday darling: #43.
Photos depicting a full and lively twenty-three years drew eyes to the jumbotron behind the end zone.
Emotions of all kinds scattered the faces of those walking up the cement stadium steps, all with some tinge of disbelief as to why they were there. Smiles and laughs were intermingled between looks of confusion, sadness and lingering shock.
One row to my left, Phil's high school teammates sat shoulder-to-shoulder, memories hitting suddenly and quickly as they stared at that Trojan emblem at the center of the field with tear-filled eyes. A bittersweet reunion yanking them back together, forcing somewhat of a forgotten passage of time between leaving high school and this moment.
Current and former Auburn players sat a few rows down. The bright orange polos they wore signified the team bond they had shared as they worked together in carrying on the Auburn football name.
At exactly 8pm, the crowd settled down and the stadium suddenly went quiet. Hands held tightly, the Lutzenkirchens walked together in stride to their seats on the field, walking sadly yet confidently in front of an applauding crowd.
Confidence at a time like this would to some, seem unattainable. But the Lutzenkirchens seemed to find a sense of security, knowing that the family they've built is strong and the son and brother they've lost lived life to the fullest.
Behind the face mask of every athlete exists more. For those who knew Philip outside of the yard lines and the hash marks, there was a remarkable person who, as countless people have attested, grabbed life by the horns and gave it all he had in a way that served not only his interests, but the greater good. In my mind, there's little more you could wish for your child.
I've spent countless days and hours with Ann, Phil's older sister. We got to know each other working side-by-side as we began launching our own careers in sports television. Especially in the SEC college football setting, listening to others meet Ann and hear her last name, it was almost comical how often I heard "Wait….like as in the Auburn tight end Lutzenkirchen…?"
Ann's disposition, a willingness to be goofy and positive coupled with an eagerness to learn, drew me to her as a friend. A shared brother/sister trait, these were exactly the qualities that drew others to Philip as well. That was something I found instantly noticeable upon first meeting him. To this, Philip’s dad put it well that Wednesday night when he addressed Phil’s sisters:
“Amy, you were Philip’s rock, Abby, his little angel and Ann--you were Philip’s soulmate.”
As was also said at the Wednesday night memorial service, Phil truly had that "it" factor: a deep love for humanity and care for those around him that propelled his life and his outreach far beyond the activities that identified him.
Ann has told friends that the characteristic she most admired about her brother was exactly that: the true love he showed everyone he met; a display of genuine interest that transcended what was ever required of him.
As the sun continued to set in that June evening sky, magnificent hues of pink, orange and red surrounded us, painting a gorgeous sunlit setting for the celebration of this young life.
Philip's high school football coach, Chip Lindsey, Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs, and Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn each shared a special perspective on Phil and the impact he had on others. Stories and tidbits yanked laughs from the bellies of the crowd here and there, and that's likely just the way Phil would've wanted it.
The night sky grew dark and a tribute video played on the jumbotron, taking everyone back to time spent with friends and family, vacations and milestones on the field. All together, these moments built Phil's life.
Soon after, candles were lit and raised to the sky. The music gave way to complete silence, as we took a minute to calm our thoughts and our hearts.
Hands were shaken, hugs embraced and words exchanged with loves ones as Frank Fillman Stadium emptied. But while the gates have been exited and the services ended, life inevitably charges onward without Philip here with us. But there's no doubt that the life he chose to lead will maintain it's presence here on earth, in our minds, memories and hearts.
And while life outside of football surely outweighs the snaps, downs, blocks, and catches, it was amazing to witness the way the game Philip loved allowed a treasure of a person to be shared with so many.
Philip Lutzenkirchen, you will always be adored.
The video provided below, shares a few moments of the memorial service gathering held in Lassiter's Frank Fillman Stadium, as well one of his famous catches. This one, made as a high schooler.