AUBURN — It will be a play which both Auburn and Alabama fans won’t forget, though for wildly different reasons.
Auburn trailed 27-21 early in the fourth quarter of the 2010 Iron Bowl when on third-and-four from the Alabama 7-yard line Cam Newton found tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen for the game-winning touchdown in one of the most improbable comebacks in the rivalry’s history.
In celebration, Lutzenkirchen made a dance move which became a viral Internet video which has more than 100,000 views to date.
“I try to forget the dance part,” said Lutzenkirchen, whose Auburn career was cut short due to a torn labrum and three bone spurs on his left hip which required season-ending surgery. “At the time I didn’t really think I understood the whole meaning of that and what it meant to everyone but as I’ve gotten older and as my career has come to an end I realize how special that moment was and how much a dagger it was into the heart of those people over in Tuscaloosa.
“Hopefully we can get another one in this coming up Iron Bowl.”
If the Tigers (2-7, 0-6 SEC) are going to have a shot in this year’s Iron Bowl or this Saturday night when they host No. 5 Georgia (8-1, 6-1), it will be without Lutzenkirchen, the school’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions by a tight end (14), second in receptions by a tight end (59) and third in receiving yards by a tight end (628).
Lutzenkirchen had surgery on his left hip on Oct. 24 and has been rehabbing since. Tuesday morning, he spoke publically for the first time since his college playing career ended.
He first felt discomfort to his hip which he said “locked up” during two-a-day practices in the fall of 2011.
“Certain positions, like my three-point stance, I could feel it a lot when I squatted down,” Lutzenkirchen said. “It always clicked a lot, and I could feel it catching. It just got to the point where I could tell in my strength and speed, it had declined a lot.
“It’s just really frustrating as a player, because you never want to admit that something like that is hindering you and making you not play to your full potential.”
The injury got progressively worse and after an unsuccessful remedy prior to playing LSU, it reached a breaking point after the Ole Miss game.
“Whenever I was playing or walking, I could feel the labrum catching onto bone spurs and tearing a little bit each time,” Lutzenkirchen said. “The doctors pretty much said if I didn’t get it fixed and kept playing on it, the bones were rubbing together and I probably would have had to have a hip replacement before I was 25 or 30. Hopefully this helps makes me not have to have one.”
Before having the bleak outlook of a potential hip replacement, Lutzenkirchen was undecided about whether to try and play on. One of several people he spoke to was Auburn coach Gene Chizik.
“He was very distraught,” Chizik said. “I just told him, ‘I know there’s a lot on your plate right now because you’re thinking about wanting to finish this season out and making sure you do all you can to help Auburn win,’ because that’s who he is. And on the other side of that, you’ve got him thinking about a career beyond this.
“I just said at the end of the day when you really sit down and think about this and you really soul-search and pray on it and do whatever you have to do, you’ve got to end up doing health-wise what is the best for you not 10 weeks from now but 30 years from now. Because one of the things that happens with an injury like that is you don’t want to walk around with a limp for the rest of your life either so that you can finish what you started. … When all the evidence came back, it wasn’t hard. He had to get it done.”
Lutzenkirchen is two weeks into what is expected to be a three-month rehabilitation process. He said he has been working on range of motion and resistance exercises and hopes to be working on an underwater treadmill in the coming days with the goal of jogging in “a month-and-a-half, two months.”
As he looked back on his decision to come to Auburn – which he called “one of the best decisions” in his life – and his three-plus seasons playing for the Tigers, Lutzenkirchen recalled his most fond memories. From his first career touchdown – a 13-yard reception against Mississippi State – when he was a freshman, to the 2010 national championship season which he called a “dream season.”
“My favorite play from (2010) was when Kodi (Burns) scored in the national championship,” Lutzenkirchen said. “That was awesome just because his story was awesome and I was just glad that he got the opportunity to finally get in the end zone.”
Chizik was unfazed that Lutzenkirchen cited Burns’ catch as his favorite play, rather than his game-winning score against Alabama.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Chizik said. “I think he’s a very selfless guy, and I think that’s what’s going to make him be successful whatever he does after this because it’s never really been about him. He could stand up and beat his chest for a lot of the things that he’s accomplished that people would dream about accomplishing in his career here, but he never does that. He’s always going to talk about somebody else.”
It is his play, his selflessness and his work in the community which have made Lutzenkirchen a beloved player. At dinner last Friday with his father, a stranger came up to him and thanked him for all he has done at Auburn.
“It was very humbling and just awesome for someone to come up and say that to me,” Lutzenkirchen said. “It’s tough, it’s crazy that it’s ending; this week’s been pretty tough on me so far just because it’s Georgia and being from Georgia. I don’t know; I don’t want to get too emotional but I’ve been – I’m happy to be a Tiger.”
Provided he’s “100 percent” healthy, Lutzenkirchen is aiming to take part in one of the senior all-star games after the season, the NFL Combine and Auburn’s Pro Day as he prepares to take his play to the next level.
In the meantime, the Marietta, Ga. native will still patrol the Auburn sidelines and support his teammates.
“I owe a lot to Auburn, Auburn doesn’t owe anything to me,” he said “If that’s the only thing I can do right now, is just be supportive of these guys and try to help them out, then that’s what I’m going to do.”