As thousands settled in their seats, Mike Lutzenkirchen looked up and beyond his Auburn visor and spoke about his son. "I'm a father that had a son, who was his best friend," he said.
Several thousand friends and fans gathered Wednesday at a public memorial inside Frank Fillmann Stadium at Lassiter High School to celebrate the life of former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. The 23-year-old died early Sunday in a single-vehicle accident outside LaGrange, Georgia.
His on-the-field accomplishments were celebrated, and his kind and generous attitude off the field was remembered."There's a new tight end in Heaven," Mike Lutzenkirchen said. "He catches everything."
The tight end's shocking death shook Auburn to its core Sunday. Fans gathered to roll Toomer's Corner that afternoon, but it wasn't until Wednesday friends, fans and family had the chance to gather and celebrate the Auburn legend's life.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn called the tight end -- the first recruit Malzahn ever visited as Auburn's offensive coordinator six years ago -- one of the best people to ever wear an Auburn jersey. Lutzenkirchen's mother, Mary, father and three sisters made an immediate impact on Malzahn during the in-home visit.
"He made you feel like family," said Malzahn, who cut a vacation in Hawaii short to catch a flight to Georgia for Lutzenkirchen's memorial. "He also probably had more friends than any player I've ever coached."Malzahn, poking fun at himself and his persona for being "a little stiff," said he could always count on Lutzenkirchen to make him smile with a joke in pressure situations. "I'm going to miss that," Malzahn said.
More importantly, Lutzenkirchen also had a tremendous sense of timing. When friends and coaches needed help, he had the sense to know before they said anything. On the bus ride back from a playoff loss as a senior at Lassiter High, Lutzenkirchen reached out to his coach. Chip Lindsey, in his first season, was fresh of leading Lassiter to the school's first playoff victory in its history the week before, but the loss that night was still stinging. Lindsey's phone buzzed. Lutzenkirchen had sent him a text message: "Hey big guy," Lindsey remembers. "Thank you so much for coming to our school, making our senior year one we'll never forget. Love you, Phil."
Lutzenkirchen sent supportive messages like that all the time, and not only to his coaches. "He always knew when I was a little bit down and he would text me at the right time," Malzahn said. "He just really changed my whole way of thinking with an encouraging message."
As the sun set beyond the end zone, Lutzenkirchen's high school jersey was on display -- complete with football pads -- in the very end zone in which he made several catches on his way to becoming a college star at Auburn. On the 35-yard-line, his Auburn jersey number -- 43 -- was painted on the field in blue and orange.The service, spanning nearly 90 minutes, included video tributes and testimony from his former coaches, Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs and team chaplain Chette Williams. "It's unbelievable the impact that he has had on people at the age of 23," Jacobs said. "I could only hope each of us could have a fraction of that impact on people."
Lutzenkirchen's former teammates were asked to share one word to describe him during a team meeting Monday, Jacobs said. "Happy, relentless, dedicated, friend, loyal, determined, loving," Jacobs said.
Lutzenkirchen's career at Auburn was cut short due to a hip injury during his senior season in 2012, but he finished his career with the most touchdown catches (14) by a tight end in school history.
"When he talked to me and he talked to you, he spoke to us as if this may be our last day on Earth," Jacobs said. "What a better place it has been because of Philip Lutzenkirchen. And what a better way to take him forward than for us to treat one another that way."
His father, Mike, wearing a blue blazer with a "43" button on the left collar, spoke for 10 minutes. He recapped the last 72 hours and how he gained the strength to stand up in front of thousands to talk about his son.
Later, Malzahn spoke about how Lutzenkirchen made it difficult for him to not call the star tight end his favorite player. Lutzenkirchen, he said, was the type of man you would want your daughter to marry.
"Philip, we love you and we're going to miss you," Malzahn said. "And we can't wait to see you in Heaven. War Eagle."
A moment of silence was observed, and several thousand attendees lit candles as the sun set in the Georgia sky -- providing a fitting blue and orange backdrop in Lutzenkirchen's home state.
A public visitation and funeral Mass for Lutzenkirchen will begin Thursday at 10:30 a.m. ET inside Transfiguration Catholic Church in Marietta, Georgia. The funeral Mass will follow at 1 p.m.