Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Legend of Lutz: Honoring 43

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I didn't know Philip Lutzenkirchen personally. Sure, I wished I did. Who wouldn't? Aside from shaking his hand at the spring A-Day game in 2009, a Fan Day or two, and a few Tweets on Twitter,  I have no personal connection to him, other than as a fan. I guess the closest I ever came to him after he became such a sensation is yelling at him from our tailgate spot in front of Plainsman Park after the Prayer in Jordan-Hare. He turned, smiled, and waved, then he was gone.

I feel for anyone and everyone who did know Lutz. I can't imagine how they felt about losing him. If I feel as bad as I do about losing a great man, I can't imagine what they feel.  I'm not writing this article for you to feel sorry for me or for Auburn fans, and I certainly don't want you to think it's just some other article out there trying to get some attention. I just feel like I, as a fan, owe him a few words and thoughts after what he has given me.

Coach Saban had been at Alabama for a little over a year. In that short year, Auburn fans like myself had become educated to just how important recruiting was in winning football. It wasn't that Coach Tuberville had done a bad job, it was just that Saban had revolutionized the National Signing Day. I had begun to keep up with recruiting a fair amount in 2008. While there was zero doubt that Tuberville had a lock on top defensive talent, the offensive woes of 2008 didn't look like they would improve much in 2009, as the the cupboard seemed bare and the class of 2008 was missing offensive playmakers. Except for one player.

Not that I am a talent expert, but there was one offensive player on the list of Auburn recruits that I could draw a circle around and label "can't miss." Philip Lutzenkirchen exhibited all of the play making abilities that Auburn needed, and he did so in more ways than you might expect. While different positions push their agenda with a skill or two:  receivers showcase their speed and hands, running backs their power and moves, the man we called Lutz showcased a skill SET. He blocked inline. He blocked on the perimeter. He made catches in space. He made catches in traffic. But he wasn't just a workhorse tight end, as he also had a fair amount of circus plays of his own, which made him an internet sensation. But, I had rarely seen a highschool kid that brought such a complete game with him. We always hear about how receivers have to learn route reading or running backs have to pick up blocking schemes, which is why so few make it on the field early. But, there was zero doubt in my mind that Lutz would be a guy who could understand it all and implement it quickly.

With the closing whistle of a blowout loss to Alabama, the word was already out that Tuberville and Franklin were out the door. While that wasn't a surprise, what would be a surprise was the decision for the #3 tight end in the country to remain steadfast to his commitment to Auburn. To many, it seems simple hindsight that I would label him so important to Auburn football, but the truth is that in 2009, the player that I had the most apprehension about signing was Lutz. That's saying something, since the class of 2009 was littered with NFL talent like McCalebb, Nick Fairley, Emory Blake, Daren Bates and Dee Ford.  I don't mean that as a snub to any of them in the slightest. But, if I had been given a list (and I was, thanks to Rivals) of incoming freshman and asked to circle the one that would be a certain major impact, Lutz was the one. With the infusion of Coaches Chizik and Malzahn, he decided to stay an Auburn commitment. I breathed a sigh of relief.

2009 exhibited an offensive explosion of the likes I had never seen. The combination of two future NFL talents in Ben Tate and Ontario McCalebb proved to be deadly out of the backfield while the unlikely QB, Chris Todd, put up some amazing numbers. Lutz found himself behind a 4 year starter in Tommy Trott, who had been a decent threat to defenses each year, being the most prolific tight end that Auburn had seen in my lifetime. Trott held the bar for Auburn tight ends with his career 45 catches and 4 TDs.

Yet, it didn't take long for Lutz to become a contributor, as he snagged his very first college pass in the 3rd quarter against Mississippi State for a touchdown. I was there. And while Kodi Burns was the official player of the game with his 3 TD runs and 1 TD toss to Lutz, it was an official changing of the guard at tight end and the development of a real weapon at tight end. I recall going back to my best friends house after the game and replaying the whole game on Tivo and talking about the importance of these new recruits, such as Blake, Lutz, and McCalebb.

In 2009, he snagged 4 passes for 66 yards and 2 TDs.

With Cam and the explosive National Championship team, he caught 15 balls for 185 yards and 5 TDs, easily overshadowing (in my mind) any Auburn tight end in my 30 years as a football fan. But it wasn't the stats that made him the premier tight end in Auburn lore. After all, Andy Fuller set the bar extremely high in 1993 with one of the biggest catches in Auburn history against #1 Florida. Fuller had a terrific career himself, catching 33 passes for 513 yards and 5 TDs.

In fact, what catapulted him to the top for Auburn tight ends isn't 1 play, but 2...at least.

The first play that will live forever in Auburn fan's minds is the TD grab in Bryant-Denny to cap one of the greatest comebacks in all of college football. I have written my thoughts in The Cam-back: Iron Bowl 2010 on this game, including the pure elation that exploded after his catch to seal the game. After most big time TDs (and especially those not so big ones), we see some form of practiced choreography. We sigh chestbumps and high steps. We see players spiking the ball. It's all usually thought out and practiced. What we are seeing is players celebrating for themselves. Not for the game. And not for the fans. But that wasn't Lutz's reaction. After the simple half dozen high steps that Lutz threw down after his biggest catch, he exploded into a heartfelt blast of emotions because he KNEW and UNDERSTOOD what this game meant. The catch was never about him. It wasn't about stats. It wasn't about NFL draft stock. It was about his team and his fans. You can see it in the dance, but more importantly in his eyes and the pure unadulterated scream of ecstasy after the Lutzie.They had done something so few teams had done or ever would do.  They had gone into Big Brothers house. Had gone under the knife. And had clawed out to deliver a knock out blow that was the defining moment of this generation's Iron Bowl fans. And he knew it. He felt it. Because he authored it.


How about  the one-handed grab and dive against Ole Miss. Take a second to watch:
It was truly an amazing play from beginning to end. But what most people don't know or remember is what that TD cost him. He tore his labrum early in the year, but he played through it. It is an injury I have experienced myself. When it first happens, it isn't too bad. But, the more you do, the worse it gets until you have the last straw.  I believe it was in his dive into the endzone in this play that was the end. Perhaps his greatest feat of personal accomplishment on the field is overshadowed by just what it cost him. While all of us in the stands or at home clapped each other on the back and talked about the Great Lutz, we should see it in a different way: that this one play exemplified his love and devotion to Auburn Football. To the point where he would give his body for each of you. And he did.

It's easy to remember the high points. It's easy to recall the the things we want to remember. But we should also remember that Lutz gave us more than just an Iron Bowl win and near record breaking stats  in all categories as a tight end. He sacrificed his body for the Auburn Family. He gave up potentially millions for each and every one of us. Lutz could have left after the 2011 season for the NFL as one of the top graded tight ends in the country. He had wrapped up the greatest season for an Auburn tight end with 24 catches for 238 yards and 7 TDs on one of the most inexperienced teams Auburn has fielded in recent history. And he did all of that playing through injury. It would have been easy to say goodbye and enter the draft and cash in on his hard work. I would have and so would you. Even in a plagued 2012 campaign where he had serious injuries all throughout the year and the ball just wouldn't come his way, he never gave in. He fought until his body gave out. He could have hit the bench and tried to salvage an NFL draft pick. But he didn't. This man had different priorities. He had the right ones.

Lutz loved Auburn and Auburn loved him. He is one of the few players we will ever see that stayed in school because he loved his University and fans. Along the way, he did what so few NFL prospects ever care about doing: he got his degree and, he stayed completely out of trouble. There was zero doubt in anyone's mind who coaches would send to SEC Media Days. And, just as he was reliable on the field, he was reliable off of it, staying completely out of trouble, something sorely missing in the modern age of major college athletics.

His love for Auburn was so great that despite having graduated only months before and experiencing NFL life, he was back at Auburn as an Ambassador for our great University. Typically, it takes years for people of such stature to even begin to care about giving back to their school, yet here Lutz was, recruiting for the school, hoping to find a spot as a coach. Just 2 years after he had left. Amazing, really.

And while detractors may point out that ultimately football is about self-gratification and "making it," Lutz proved to be about more than making millions in the NFL. He was invested in his friends and fans and loved giving them time. Lutz was a force on social media, never above interacting with his fans. He would let you know where he was and when he would be there. He had such a zeal for life that he shared through social media. My wife and I constantly found ourselves laughing at his antics. Lutz was his own man and he believed in being true to himself and his fans. While his accomplishments on the field are evident and his plays immortalized forever, that's not how we should all remember him.

Lutz is the embodiment of everything we want to see in our athletes. He was fiercely loyal to his University. He loved his fans. He believed in doing things the right way. He displayed courage and character in his play on the field and his life off of it. He Believed in Auburn and Loved It.