In 2011, I edited what is arguably the greatest preseason Auburn football magazine the world has ever seen, which thankfully allowed me to meet Philip Lutzenkirchen.
I took my daughter Sadie with me to the Athletic Complex. Halfway through the interview, she had to go to the bathroom. I told her to hold it. I couldn’t take up any more an Auburn football star’s time to take her to wherever the bathroom was, and because I was an overprotective parent and worried about everything I wasn’t going to let her go by herself.
“OK, sorry, where were we…”
“How old is she,” he asked.
“Don’t worry, man, I think she’s got this.” He pointed and told her where the bathroom was. “You can do it!”
She did it. She came back alive. And that was the moment I stopped being an overprotective parent, true story. Anytime I worry she can’t do something by herself, I think back to that moment—to Philip Lutzenkirchen’s parenting advice—and draw a little strength from it.
Sadie found a pair of those 3D glasses that one of the beat writers brought back from the 2010 Ole Miss game. I took their picture. I don’t try to force Sadie into football—liking it, watching it, etc. When I was her age, I had Auburn’s roster memorized. Sadie, on the other hand, only knows the names of three football players.
Cam, Bo, and Philip Lutzenkirchen. She pronounces it right and everything.
Here’s the story and interview. There’s some good stuff in there.
Capping, as it did, the greatest comeback (in the greatest rivalry and in the greatest season) in Auburn history, the last touchdown pass Philip Lutzenkirchen caught is the last and only pass he’d ever have to catch to stay forever golden in the Auburn mind.
Here’s how Crimson Tide Sports Network color man Phil Savage dejectedly described it to the Bama fans still listening: “That’s that screen play they run. It’s a throwback to the tight end. I was just about going to say right before that snap ‘you’ve got to keep an eye on Lutzenkirchen.’ He’s the red zone threat down here. Newton rolls to his right, throws it back to the tight end across the field. Again, another staple play for this Gus Malzahn offense.”
Staple is almost an understatement. Throughout the 2010 season, if Auburn was near the goal line, and if the Lutzenkirchen kid was in the game, Auburn was going to score a touchdown, which is to say that Philip Lutzenkirchen was going to score a touchdown. Lutzenkirchen caught 15 passes last year. He caught five of them in the end zone. A running Auburn joke? Lutzenkirchen is German for “Touchdown Maker.”
What Savage didn’t capture—and what no one really has, or really can outside of YouTube tribute videos—is the manner in which Philip Lutzenkirchen celebrated that game-winning touchdown against Alabama: a spontaneous, uninhibited, non-excessive series of high steps and kicks that endeared him to Auburn fans almost as much as the points themselves. With a seven-yard reception and a two-yard buck dance, he became an instant Internet legend.
It was just like high school.
Lutzenkirchen was already an online star to recruitniks thanks his alley-oop touchdown-scoring push pass to a teammate after catching the ball in mid-air while falling out of bounds in the end zone during a game his senior year at Atlanta’s Lassiter High School. The play made YouTube. Then it made ESPN. The fourth Google search suggestion for “Philip Lutzenkirchen” (after “Philip Lutzenkirchen girlfriend” but before “Philip Lutzenkirchen Dance”)? “Philip Lutzenkirchen Miracle Play.” Later that year, similar attention was given to a video of him going Knowshon Moreno over a defender en route to a touchdown titled: “Philip Lutzenkirchen does it again.”
In 2011, Auburn is going to need Philip Lutzenkirchen to do it again.
The junior tight end suddenly finds himself a veteran leader on an Auburn squad that will be defined by youth more than any other in recent memory, and more than pretty much any team in the nation (Phil Steele has us, you know, dead last in terms of experience). It’s an unprecedented lowering of expectations for a defending BCS National Champion. Some folks have us barely getting to six wins, let alone back to Atlanta.
Philip Lutzenkirchen, thankfully, is not one of those people.
Lutzenkirchen is determined to get back to Atlanta (and not just for birthday parties or Braves games). He’s determined to get back there to win the SEC (and you know what happens to team’s that win the SEC). He’s determined to compete, not just survive, during his two remaining seasons as an Auburn Tiger (and yes, that includes this season—why do you ask?). He’s determined to be more than the officially confirmed longest name in the history of Auburn football (“Right now, that’s the only record I have.”) And he’s determined to be remembered for more than a Riverdance (even if it came after the go-ahead hallelujah in the greatest Iron Bowl in a generation).
Philip Lutzenkirchen is determined.
My six-year-old daughter Sadie and I sat down with the sweaty, determined, forever golden young Touchdown Maker at the Auburn Athletic Complex the day after his 20th birthday (June 1), right after a grueling summer session of Yoxercise, to talk about the glorious insanity of last season, the cautious optimism of this season, and, yes, the dance… Good God, the dance.
Me: So why Auburn?
Lutzenkirchen: Well, I grew up Chicago, moved down to Atlanta when I was about 8. I really wasn’t a fan of any team, I really didn’t follow a team. Growing up I thought I’d play basketball in college. I started playing football and when I got to high school I realized most teams didn’t want a 6”4 center on their basketball team, so I put my focus in football. I really didn’t have a favorite school so I just went around and visited. And I knew I wanted to stay local, somewhere close to Atlanta where I’m from, and Auburn was just perfect distance, two hours away, parents could come see me every weekend. That was a big thing, and just the comfort level. I wanted to find a school where if football were to be taken away from me —cause it can happen on any play —I wanted a school where I would enjoy just being a normal student. And I picked Auburn because it was the best pick for that. I had a couple of friends come here, and just the whole atmosphere — the school, the campus, the people, really. There are just good people here. It’s true what they say: it’s a family.
Me: Recruiting-wise, who else was after you?
Lutzenkirchen: My recruitment was kind of crazy. When I first committed to Auburn, it was under Tuberville. Tuberville and Coach (Tony) Franklin are the ones I committed to the spring of my junior year, going into my senior year. I liked the offense Coach Franklin brought in. And I guess I just really liked the school. And I think during that time it was between Clemson, Stanford, Auburn, Florida State… ACC and SEC schools, for the most part. I was committed probably for a good six months and then Coach Tuberville and Coach Franklin got fired. And I didn’t de-commit, but I kind of looked around at some of my other options and took some visits, just cause I felt I should in case they brought in a coach with a triple-option type team, where I wouldn’t have been playing anything from my natural position. So after that I looked at Florida, I looked at Tennessee, I looked at Georgia, Alabama, Florida State again and a couple of other schools outside ACC and SEC. I really liked Florida’s program. But I just couldn’t really see myself living in Gainesville. I just didn’t get the same feeling I got when I came to Auburn. And then Georgia was another great program. Everyone wanted me to go there. But I just didn’t get the same feeling as I had when I came to Auburn. I just didn’t feel that comfort level at any other school. All of them are great programs and everything, but it just didn’t click. So luckily they brought Coach Chizik in, and Coach Chizik made it a point to come visit me as the first person he saw. He got hired and then two days later he came to visit me.
Me: You were the first?
Lutz: Yeah, I was the first.
Me: You sure he didn’t just tell everybody that?
Lutz: I hope not! But yeah, it was cool for him to do that. He came to one of my basketball games and hung out. And Coach Lolley came. And he just said be patient with us. He encouraged me to go look at other schools but he said I’d really like the coordinator that they were going to name. He didn’t give me a name, but two weeks later we found out it was Coach Malzahn. So I came down here and met with Coach Malzahn and watched a bunch of film. I think we watched about an hour of two of film, me and him. He told me how they’d use me as the H-Back kind of, and just seeing his stats on offense alone, what they put up each year was big for me, and I just stuck with Auburn.
Me: A lot of Auburn fans, or at least this Auburn fan, kind of grow up imagining that most Auburn players choose Auburn because they love Auburn, because they want to win for the glory of Auburn just because it’s Auburn, not because it’s the team of the school that happened to be closest to home or happened to have the best pizza in town or something like that. Obviously, that’s not really reality. But now that you’re here, do you have a sense of obligation to the history and tradition and importance that folks place on Auburn football?
Lutz: Yeah, I mean, you come here, and you really don’t know much about the tradition, and all that. And then you start to meet the fans. First Fan Day, first fall I was here, you really kind of see how big this whole thing is. It’s way bigger than you individually. It’s a program with such a storied tradition. So many great players have come before. So it makes you want to work to keep that tradition going. It’s hard to describe, but you meet former players, you meet a Bo Jackson, you meet a…
Sadie: … a Cam Newton.
Lutz: Ha… right, and a Cam Newton. And it’s just players like that. That’s the level you want to get to. That’s what you want to be known as. And when you meet the fans for the first time, you realize how big this whole thing is. I mean, some people’s entire life revolves around Auburn football. And especially in a state where there are no professional sports, it’s either Auburn or it’s Alabama, so that’s another big thing. You come here and you want to get the win for the good side.
Me: Speaking of, it’s it strange to learn how much that game means to people? Is there extra pressure to please, Dear God, win that game?
Lutz: You go into that game, and coaches do their best to make sure you realize it’s just the next game. But at the same time there’s just so much riding on it for the state. Especially when we’re ranked No. 1 overall at the time and Alabama was No. 8 or No. 9 or something like that. So it was a huge game, but you really do have to kind of step back and try not to get too high emotionally and try not to get too low emotionally, because it really just is another game and was really just the next step for us to get to the SEC championship. But yeah, there’ a lot of emotion the whole week building up to it. We have former players coming in and former players calling us and giving us pep talks.
Me: Just specifically for that game?
Lutz: Yeah, the coaches do that, they make it a point to do that. I mean, it gets pretty heated during the week, but then it calms down a night or two before game day.
Me: You know the whole thing about Bama playing Son of a Preacher Man and Take The Money and Run as Auburn ran out on the field for the first time? Were y’all actually aware of what was going on at the time?
Lutz: Well, you come out of the tunnel and you expect some upbeat music, like some rap music or rock music. And that’s the one thing I remember. We were running out of the tunnel and I was kind of absorbing everything, because it was the first time I’d played at Bryant-Denny and probably the biggest Iron Bowl I’ve been in. And you run out on the field and I knew something wasn’t right because the music was weird. I didn’t think much of it, I didn’t really listen to the lyrics to see what song it was, but I was just like, ‘this is kind of bizarre, that they’re playing a slow-paced song right now.’
Me: What about Cam? Did he know? You think he’d ever even heard those songs? Was he aware of what they were doing?
Lutz: I’m sure he wasn’t. But if he was, he probably just laughed it off.
Me: OK, so let’s talk Cam real quick. What were your first impressions?
Lutz: He came in and everyone’s like, yeah, we signed a pretty good quarterback. And it was like, yeah, we’re having a quarterback race, let’s get another guy in there. And he comes in and he’s 6”6, 255 lbs, bigger than me as tight end. And it’s like, I’m kinda worryin’ about this kid not having a job and taking my position. But no, we did workouts with him, and he’s winning every sprint and he’s just workin’ his tail off, and we’re all just like, all right. He gained a lot of respect from that.
Me: So when did you know we — can I say we?
Me: OK, so when did you know we—you and I—were going to win it all?
Lutz: When Wes kicked the field goal!
Me: Well, was there some point during the season where you thought, yeah, we might do it… this season might be special?
Lutz: We kind of took it game by game, but I knew we could be good that South Carolina game, when we went back and watched the film with Cam when he had that incredible run where he dove from like the 9-yard line or wherever. Going into the season, Cam had never done full-contact anything. If anybody came close to him, they called the play dead, so we didn’t know that Cam was going to rush for over 1,000 yards this year, we never really knew. We just kind of learned who our team was every game. I think that South Carolina run was huge. And just throughout the season, just being able to come back in the 4th quarter to win the game four or five times was huge. But I think our defining game was that LSU game, when they said LSU was going to stop our run the whole game. And we ended up putting 440 yards of rushing on them. And they were a tough defense, too. After that, we just got it in our mind that we weren’t going to be stopped.
Me: So going into this season, it seems like it’d kind of be impossible to not have a feeling that last year, which was pretty much the greatest Auburn season ever, can’t really be topped. Is it going to be hard to go forward?
Lutz: I mean, it’s a season that no one’s ever going to forget. It’s a magical season, but looking back on it, it’s great to learn what kind of work, what kind of effort it takes to do something like that. We have such a young team this year, but we have a lot of guys who saw what it took to win a championship, to win the SEC. It’s a tough thing to go undefeated in the SEC. It’s a grind every week, every day.
Me: Was it true that last spring y’all felt y’all could be a special team?
Lutz: Yeah, we knew we could be good. And this spring it’s the same thing. We know we can be good. We know we can get back to the Georgia Dome. We just have a lot of maturing to do. And we have to work a lot harder. And a lot of kids are going to have to step up on the O-Line. A lot of younger guys — some of the receivers, DBS… we’re going to be young all over the place. It’s not a lack of talent. We’ll have just as much talent as we did last year, just a lot less experience. So that’s why I say we’ll have to take it game by game and not get too high or too low. I don’t know if we’ll win or lose. Of course we’ll be disappointed with a loss. We’re working to win every single game again.
Me: Why not repeat?
Lutz: Exactly. That’s what we’re working for.
Me: So… The Dance.
Lutz: I can’t really go anywhere without that coming up.
Me: I mean, did it feel like something at the time? I mean, surely it wasn’t a conscious thing. I mean, I guess it could have been a conscious thing…
Lutz: No, no, no. You know, it’s funny you say that, because I come off the field… I mean, I made the catch. I got so excited. It’s at Alabama. It’s the game-winning touchdown. And I come off the field and everyone’s just kind of slapping me in the head and everything. And my best friend, Neil Caudle, who I roomed with, was like ‘that was awesome, that was awesome… but what did you just do?’ And I was like, what do you mean? And he was like, ‘you just did, like, a dance.’ And I was like, oh God. So I didn’t really know. And then the funny part is, is that we’re on the bus, and we’re waiting to bus out from the game, and it takes like an hour to get loaded and everything and the highlights start coming on. We’ve got like, four or five TV’s on there. And ESPN is playing it. And the highlights come on, and of course they show the game-winner, and from the back of the bus, just roars of laughter start coming up. And Neil leans forward and goes, ‘so… THAT’s what everyone is going to remember you for at Auburn. That dumb dance you just did.’
Me: I was at the game and couldn’t really see. I didn’t even realize that it had become this big thing until, like, the next day.
Lutz: It like, blew up on YouTube overnight, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is what I’m going to be remembered for. I mean, I’ll go out to a party or, pretty much everywhere, and someone will come up and go ‘do the Lutzie.’ And I’m just like, uh, never again.
Me: Did the attention actually made you self-conscious about catching touchdowns? Was it a distraction? Like now you not only have to concentrate on not dropping the ball, you have to concentrate on not going viral again?
Lutz: Ha! No, because I haven’t had a touchdown since. Hopefully I can get a couple of more, then we’ll see.
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