Scott Simpson will never forget where he was on the morning of June 29, 2014. That ill-fated Sunday will remain indelibly seared into the Marietta native’s memory.
Simpson had just left church and was cruising around Atlanta with his girlfriend, scoping out apartments, when he got a nightmarish call: Philip Lutzenkirchen, his best friend since elementary school and a former standout tight end for Auburn, had died in a single-car accident in LaGrange just hours earlier.
In the days and weeks ahead, the details emerged: The 23-year-old alum of Lassiter High School in Marietta who at the time was working at a wealth management firm in Montgomery, Ala. while also serving as a volunteer assistant high school football coach at Saint James School in Montgomery, had been severely intoxicated while riding in a speeding 2006 Chevrolet Tahoe.
The SUV ran a stop sign at the T-intersection of Upper Big and Lower Big Springs Roads in Troup County shortly after 3 a.m., zipped across Lower Big Springs Road and flew off the pavement at nearly 80 mph before striking a ditch, spinning off into a ravine and ultimately launching into the air.
When it finally touched down, the thrashed vehicle rolled over and over, while Lutzenkirchen, seated behind the driver and not wearing a safety belt, was ejected through the passenger’s-side backseat window, landing 15 feet from the car’s final resting place. His neck had snapped upon impact, killing him instantly.
Simpson, who back in high school had decided to matriculate at Auburn once Lutzenkirchen committed to play football for head coach Gene Chizik, spent the next several days at his late friend’s devastated home in Marietta. And yet, in Simpson’s recollection, amid the overwhelming grief following the unspeakable tragedy there was already talk from Philip’s immediate family about “using [the accident] as a learning tool” and “how do we prevent this?”
And thus, the Lutzie 43 Foundation was born. Established by Lutzenkirchen’s father, Mike, the express purpose of the foundation is preaching to schools and companies the importance of distraction-free, unimpaired driving.
Its motto, “43 Key Seconds,” (Lutzenkirchen wore #43 while setting Auburn records for a tight end, with 14 career touchdown catches, including the winning score against Alabama to preserve the 2010 national championship season) serves to remind drivers — from teenagers going to Friday night football games at their local high school to workers making the Monday morning commute — of the necessary time for ensuring they are of a stable mind, their mirrors are working, all tempting devices are silenced and, most importantly, that their seatbelt is securely fastened. The latter takes less than two seconds and very well could have prevented Lutzenkirchen’s untimely passing.
“There’s never been more distractions in a car as now,” says Simpson, who serves on the foundation’s board in addition to organizing the annual Lutzie 43 5K Road Race in Marietta, which will resume on Aug. 6. “There’s never been more aggressive driving. There’s never been busier roads. All that adds up to something that is so important in today’s world that people aren’t really getting a lot of education on before they get handed the keys to a car.”
The foundation, now in its eighth year of existence and currently in partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation on several initiatives, has thrived on the name recognition of one of Auburn’s most popular student-athletes. As his former Auburn teammates, coaches and friends fondly remember, when Lutzenkirchen wasn’t hauling in touchdown passes from future NFL star Cam Newton, he could be found engaging in the Auburn community, whether posing for photos at fan festivals or reading to students at elementary schools.
“He [Lutzenkirchen] was always giving back,” remembers Simpson, whose efforts spearheading the annual 5K have led to significant fundraising for safe driving educational programs in Cobb County, field day events for special needs students and college scholarships to graduating high school seniors nationwide.
“That’s the first thing I think of. He obviously was given a lot of God-given talent and opportunities. I think something that differentiated him from other athletes was not only his willingness to volunteer — it wasn’t just to check a box — it was something he was genuinely interested in.
“He used his stature as an athlete to get into that local community [of Auburn] and kind of make it his second home.”
Indeed, Lutzenkirchen’s kindness and generosity toward others knew no bounds. He once took a girl with Down’s syndrome to her senior prom at his alma mater and introduced 10-year-old Evan Thomason to his teammates only two weeks before the young man died of cancer.
But Lutzenkirchen, like everyone else on the planet from which he departed too soon, wasn’t perfect and, in the early hours of that day in 2014, following hours of drinking beer and whiskey with friends on a farm in western Georgia, was so heavily inebriated (his blood alcohol content was .377, nearly five times the legal limit) that he rode unbuckled in a car whose driver, Joseph Ian Davis, 22, was also intoxicated and ended up succumbing to his injuries. (The doomed vehicle’s two other passengers, 22-year-old Elizabeth Craig of Eatonton, Ga. and 20-year-old Christian Case of Dadeville, Ala. suffered traumatic injuries but ultimately survived.)
The accident was undoubtedly a horrific catastrophe that rocked both the Marietta and Auburn communities. But, thanks to Lutzenkirchen’s friends and family, the football star’s brilliant legacy endures, with educational programs spreading awareness of impaired and distracted driving in his memory.
To learn more about the Lutzie 43 Foundation and the upcoming 5K, please visit https://lutzie43.org.
- David Ostrowsky
- Scott Simpson
- Philip Lutzenkirchen
- single-car accident
- Lassiter High School
- Saint James School
- Chevrolet Tahoe
- Troup County
- Gene Chizik
- Auburn University
- Lutzie 43 Foundation
- 43 Key Seconds
- Lutzie 43 5K Road Race
- Georgia Department of Transportation
- Cam Newton
- Down's syndrome