Nobody could find my brother. The guy is 6-3, 250 with this big goofy laugh that you can hear from miles away. He’s impossible to miss. But he was nowhere to be found. This was 2013, the year after he graduated from Auburn. He was the Big Man on Campus, the guy everyone loved. Philip Lutzenkirchen. “Lutzie!” Or “Luuuuuuuutz!” (if he just caught a pass).
Philip had just been released by the Rams during training camp, and now he was back on campus for a big tailgate party. When I decided to go to the rival University of Alabama, he’d always tell me, “Aww come on, Abby, nobody does Saturdays like Auburn! Alabama is weak!”
Everybody was out in the yard grilling and drinking beer and playing cornhole. After a while, someone was like, “Hey, where the heck is Lutzie? He’s been gone for a hour.”
So they went searching for him. When they went into the house that was hosting the tailgate, nobody could believe what they saw.
There was Auburn’s big tight end. 6-3, 250. Cult hero. National Champion. Back on campus. Sitting Indian-style on the floor, surrounded by all the little kids. Watching a Disney movie.
“Lutzie, what the hell?”
He flashed his big goofy grin.
“What? It’s Aladdin!”
That’s my brother in a nutshell. On Halloween night his junior year at Auburn, I got a text message from him. It was a selfie of him smiling proudly, dressed head-to-toe as Woody from Toy Story. Blue pants. Yellow shirt. Cowboy hat. Sheriff’s badge. He couldn’t have looked more proud.
Philip was the best kind of human being. Despite being a huge, popular guy, he never lost the spirit of a little kid. He wasn’t just the guy you bring home to mom. He was the one you bring home to grandma.
Unfortunately, being a great guy didn’t stop him from making a decision that would end his life. A year after that tailgate party, Philip got into a car at the end of a night out. He was drunk. The driver was drunk. They missed a stop sign. The car flipped several times. Philip and the driver died on the scene.
This is the kind of sad story you hear all your life. From the time you start school and the D.A.R.E. officer comes in to visit your class, you hear, “One bad decision can change your life.”
But what do you do? You just envision the people in those stories as … unrealistic. Bad. Not you. Not anyone you know.
I’m an athlete myself. I play soccer at the University of Alabama. I’ve been in the meetings where someone comes in and warns us of the dangers of drugs and alcohol, how things can get carried away.
If I’m being completely honest, I’ve almost fallen asleep in some of those meetings.
That won’t happen to me. It just won’t.
It certainly will never happen to my big brother — the kid who used to pick me up and literally catapult me across the room onto the opposite couch when I wouldn’t give him the remote after school. The guy who turned down the chance to be drafted in the third round so he could get his degree from Auburn, and so he could be a captain. The guy who would leave rambling voicemails for me on Sunday mornings in a funny Eastern European accent, for no reason whatsoever. The guy who caught the go-ahead touchdown in the 2010 Iron Bowl and before politely tossing the ball to the referee.
Won’t happen. Too big. Too Strong. Too good.
Guys like Phil don’t mess up. And when they do, it’s funny. It’s endearing. They’re sorry about it. Guys like Philip don’t die.
But that’s not how life really works.
I lost my best friend. I don’t have Philip to text whenever I feel like bitching about something. He won’t be at my wedding, or the birth of my children. And you know what? That really sucks. That will never stop sucking.
But I want people reading this, especially athletes, to remember two things:
I know how you feel on a Sunday night after spending the entire week grinding away at practice and meetings with tutors while you watch people in your dorm going out on weeknights. Then you go through the emotional roller coaster of playing a game on the weekend. By Sunday night, all you want to do is blow off steam. It’s impossible not to want to go a little crazy. I saw Philip go through it. I go through it now. I’m not telling you not to drink or have fun.
But if you’re at a bonfire or a house party and you see somebody about to get in a car, stop them. Even if they seem like they’re invincible. Even if they seem like they’re a great person. Even if you think you might look lame. I don’t want anyone to go through what my family went through.
Let me tell you a final story about Philip. The year of that tailgate when he was caught watching Aladdin with all the kids, I was having some boy problems. It was my sophomore year at Alabama, and I was dating someone long-distance. He was supposed to come for Valentine’s Day, but Philip could tell I was hesitant about it.
So two days before Valentine’s Day, Philip calls me up:
“Hey, I’m coming to Tuscaloosa.”
I’m like, “You’re doing what?”
Philip always let me visit him at Auburn when I was in high school. He was actually excited about it. I’m pretty sure he was trying to brainwash me into becoming a Tiger. He had never visited me in Tuscaloosa before.
“Yeah, it’s your turn to show me around,” he said.
Actually, he probably said, “Yeah, it’s your turn to show me around that hellhole.”
He showed up on campus and it was like … I don’t know how to describe his magic better than this: He took me, my long-distance boyfriend, and half my soccer team out for pizza. With anybody else in the world, this would have been incredibly awkward. With Philip, it was a blast. Here’s this guy who crushed the hopes of the entire Alabama campus in the Iron Bowl just three years ago, and everybody is coming up to him like he’s the mayor. Even the Alabama football guys.
That weekend, we went to a baseball game, watched a tennis match, went out to the bars, and did a lot of dumb movie impressions. I showed him the quad, and all my favorite buildings on campus, and he looked at me and said, “Wow, Abby. I gotta say. Really pretty school. But it’s not Auburn.”
At the end of the weekend, my boyfriend left. Philip looked at me and said, “So … what do you think?”
And that was all that had to be said.
After he left, I remember thinking: “What 22-year-old brother visits his little sister at college on Valentine’s Day, solves her relationship problems, befriends his arch-rivals, and leaves two days later with everybody saying what an awesome guy he is?”
My brother. What a goofball.
It’s important to learn from how Philip died. But it’s equally important to learn from how he lived.
To learn more about Philip Lutzenkirchen and the Lutzie 43 Foundation that carries on his legacy, visit lutzie43.org. The objective of the Foundation is to pass on Philip’s many remarkable characteristics in terms of community service, leadership, and service to others.