AUBURN, Ala. — Walking up to the platform for a talk at Auburn Arena Wednesday, Mike Lutzenkirchen knew exactly how long it had been since his son, Philip, a former Auburn tight end, died in a single-vehicle wreck last summer: 255 days.
The fatal crash also claimed the life of the driver, Michael Ian Davis, early on the morning of June 29 in the southeastern portion of Troup County, Ga. After his son's death, Mike Lutzenkirchen helped establish the Lutzie 43 Foundation in honor of Philip's memory. And Mike has spoken at countless events since that time.
Few meant more to him than Wednesday, though.
"It's always more special to come to Auburn, just because of what it meant to Philip, what it did for Philip and his life," Mike said, before reeling off the names of those in the community who comforted him after Philip's death, which included athletics director Jay Jacobs. " ... It's real special."
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On top of that, Wednesday was Mike's 52nd birthday. He was grateful to have his family on hand: his wife, Mary, and daughters Amy and Abby, the latter who plays soccer for Alabama.
But why does he do it? What has motivated Mike to criss-cross the country talking about his son's life and the mistakes he made in the hours before his death?
It's because once Philip died, Mike said, it created a hole in his family. It's not somewhere any of the Lutzenkirchen family was used to being, and they didn't want to be there. The only option, then, was to get themselves out of it.
Which is exactly what Philip would have wanted them to do, Mike believed.
"Being a believer in Christ myself, I know that God has a long will and plan for me. I don't know what it is. I'm not privileged to know," Mike said. "But I know short-term, it's to be doing what we're doing: to carry forward everything wonderful that Philip did and have people learn from the mistake he made. If kids can match Philip in the first three elements — character, faith and community service — and avoid the mistakes he made that last day, they're going to live a long, prosperous, loving life."
The "mistakes" Mike continually reference during his media session and talk centered upon the same thing: preparation. It's something his son had mastered during his playing career with the Tigers, where he still holds school records for career touchdowns (14) and single-season scores (seven) by a tight end.
He wouldn't have accomplished that much, Mike said, if he didn't know each week's game plan inside and out.
And that's where Mike said his son erred on the night of his death: Philip drank to the point he could no longer make sound judgments. When the toxicology report of the accident was released, it revealed Lutzenkirchen had a blood alcohol level of 0.377 — nearly five times Georgia's legal limit (0.08).
"I don't think Philip prepared himself for what they were doing," Mike said during his talk. " ... I truly believe he was there to have fun with his friends, not to get hammered. And I've said this in other talks, but I'll say (it again): There's simply nothing good that happens in Auburn — or any other rural community — after midnight when you get behind the wheel."
That's why he challenged those in attendance Wednesday. Be willing to say no. If you see a friend who is too drunk to drive, take their keys.
"It's not popular to tell someone not to drink or get behind the wheel," Mike said, "but that's all forgotten by the time you both wake up in the morning and you're both safe."
Mike didn't dispute that what he's been doing might struck others as odd; in similar circumstances, most parents wouldn't continue speaking about the death of their child, especially in front of so many large crowds. But Mike said not doing that would be a disservice to his son's legacy. Philip loved going out and meeting people, volunteering in the community whenever he could.
His son lived a "phenomenal life" that ended on a night when he made a flurry of bad choices, all fueled by alcohol.
If telling Philip's story can prevent future tragedies, Mike said all of his talks will have been worth it.
"My son was a 23-year-old man, mature beyond his age because of Auburn University and representing this brand and getting in front of the media and going to (SEC) media days twice," Mike said. "Philip made the choice to do what he did that day. And Philip made the choice to get in that vehicle. That was a grown man making that decision. I just don't want to see other kids make it, so that gives me strength to have this conversation."