Which was appropriate, not because the Trojans had a home game, but because the Lassiter and Auburn football families had come together to celebrate Philip Lutzenkirchen, who had “gone home.”
Lutzenkirchen, 23, the former Lassiter standout and Auburn University star, died early Sunday morning, along with the driver, Joseph Ian Davis, 22, of Atlanta, in a one-vehicle accident just after 3 a.m. in Troup County, near LaGrange.
Thousands of friends, teammates and fans packed the home stands to pay tribute in a public memorial service to a player and young man who touched their lives in various ways.
Tigers’ coach Gus Malzahn and athletic director Jay Jacobs were among those honoring Lutzenkirchen, along with his former high school coach, Chip Lindsey, and Auburn football chaplain Reverend Chette Williams.
“I’m here to celebrate the life of one of the best dudes I’ve ever known,” said former Lassiter and North Carolina State center Camden Wentz, who was also in attendance and played all four years in high school with Lutzenkirchen. They graduated in 2009 and were a part of Lassiter’s first nine-win team in program history and the first to win a state playoff game.
“All he wanted was for everybody to be happy and to smile,” Wentz said. “When I found out what happened, I wanted to send out a Tweet, but they limit you to like 140 characters. It was impossible to put all of the words I wanted to say in that Tweet. He’ll be missed. This sucks. It really sucks.”
Wentz and Lutzenkirchen took similar paths in college.
They both played for Division I programs. Wentz started his final three years with the Wolfpack — and they both signed free agent contracts with NFL teams — Lutzenkirchen with the St. Louis Rams and Wentz with the Minnesota Vikings — before their dreams of playing professional football were cut short.
During the offseason, Lutzenkirchen and Wentz found time to spend together.
“We checked in with each other and followed each other’s careers,” Wentz said. “We were on similar paths in college. We sort of mirrored each other. When we got together, we’d talk about the old days and about a lot of the big experiences in life we shared together like signing day and draft day.
“I’ll always take from him the love that he had for everybody. To be engaged with people and to take care of one another. He was just carefree and didn’t think people should worry about the little things. I’m going to miss him.”
Lutzenkirchen’s father, Mike, and mother, Mary, and his three sisters, received a standing ovation when they walked in to take their seats on the field.
Mike was able to address the crowd because his son “has given me the strength to come up here,” he said. “I couldn’t do this Sunday night.”
Mike spoke of how Philip was his best friend. He also said everyone should pray for Ian Davis’ family. Mike thanked all of Philip’s teammates. He thanked coaches and teachers, as well as friends, extended families, his own family and Philip’s girlfriends.
“I’ll need hugs from all of my new sons,” he said.
Mike also spoke about how he managed to come to grips with what had happened after thoughtful prayer and seeing in a vision how his son was doing in heaven on Monday.
“I had an experience with Philip walking up to Jesus Christ and saying, ‘Hey J.C.!’” he said.
Lindsey, whose first season at Lassiter was Lutzenkirchen’s last, said Philip was his first big-time recruit.
“This kid is special,” Lindsey kept repeating. “He caught one pass in our first game against Sprayberry my first season. I walked up to him after the game to let him know that he’ll be a big part of this offense. But he told me all he wanted was to win games, and to have a great senior year. He was my kids’ favorite player at Lassiter and at Auburn. It was an honor to be someone he called his coach and a friend.”
Malzahn was the last to speak prior to a video tribute and candle-lighting ceremony.
He said how Lutzenkirchen was the first player he recruited when he became Auburn’s offensive coordinator, and his family was the first one he visited.
“We’re not supposed to have favorite players,” Malzahn said. “Phil made that hard at Auburn. He had a great football IQ and he was one of the best players to ever play at Auburn. He had the ‘It’ factor.
“He respected his teammates and coaches and that’s why they loved him. When I think of Philip, I know he cared for people and young people were attracted to him like a magnet. He had a caring heart and was a positive person. I’m a stiff guy, but he always tried to make me smile. He always had an encouraging message and he was courageous and stood up for his beliefs. He was the type of young man you’d want your daughter to marry.
“We love and miss him and can’t wait to see him in heaven.”
Current Lassiter coach Jep Irwin recalled his meetings with Lutzenkirchen. Irwin never coached him, but understood his significance to the program and the community.
“It was a pleasure to have known him,” Irwin said. “I saw him on film and it was that group with Philip that turned this program around. He was a great ambassador for the program and impacted a lot of people.
“The one thing I’ll remember about him is when he missed a spring practice at Auburn to come back here and take Casey Carroll to the prom. His family and the Carroll family were really close, and him coming back to do that told me about the kind of person he is.”
Lutzenkirchen meant a lot to the Carroll family as well. They wore buttons with Philip’s picture on it. Surrounding his photo were a few sentences — “Forever a Son. Forever a Brother. Forever a Friend. Forever 43.”
Lutzenkirchen wore 43 at Auburn.
There was plenty of laughter in between the sobs of Wednesday’s celebration of life. Of all the words spoken, it was Mike Lutzenkirchen’s final words that were meant to hit home to those in attendance — a reminder to fasten your seatbelt — something Philip didn’t do Sunday morning.
“Click it, if there’s a need to go out,” he said.