The Cruel End of Dreams

First published by College and Magnolia (SB Nation). You can link to it here.

As Auburn students begin another school year, and Auburn fans look ahead to football season, the sad reality of Philip Lutzenkirchen’s untimely death will hit home even more. His death was a jolt to the Auburn community, even as it happened over the summer, with many of our students gone.  Social media connected the Auburn family in its mutual grief, while also demonstrating just what Philip meant to the campus and the greater community. For many Auburn students, the first experience with peer loss is a jolt — a dose of the reality that youthful invincibility is ultimately an illusion.

For us faculty and staff — many of whom already are guaranteed decades more than these lives lost too soon — it is a jolt as well a reminder of an uncomfortable truth: Young people, current and recent students, die.

The odds turn on them with cruel randomness, and they die in car wrecks or as crime victims.

Their struggle with terminal illness lacks the ultimate triumph.

An undiagnosed condition steals in and steals life.

The substance abuse they thought they could control proves otherwise.

And some mistakenly decide that ending their own lives is preferable to living with the pain.

As faculty and staff members find ourselves within a grieving community, it is our responsibility to help the students grapple, even as we struggle in our own way.  It doesn’t get easier with practice.

In 1997, while I was at Campbell University, a freshman wrestler, Billy Saylor, 19, died while trying to cut weight for a tournament.  He was one of three wrestlers who would die that way within a month.  It led to stricter weight-cutting guidelines from the NCAA.

As word of his death spread across campus that Friday (it had happened late the previous evening), life also seemed to stop at the small campus.  It was a day of talking to students, worrying about the teammate who was there when Billy died, facing the Raleigh, N.C., media barrage.

As I watched the 6 o’clock news, it struck me.  The worst thing that happened was that Billy’s dreams had died with him.  Becoming a champion wrestler, marrying his high school girlfriend, whatever career he was aiming for — the dreams were gone too.

I remember verbalizing a question to myself: Why did God give me and not Billy Saylor November 7, 1997 (and about 6,000 more days after that)?  It seemed unfair.

The answer that came back — we could debate the source — was that I could find the answer to that question in each day that followed.  That also became my vow, and it has continued through my 11 years on the faculty at Auburn.

But more than that, the experience changed how I looked at my students.  No longer were they 85 percent fun, 15 percent why-don’t-you-listen-to-what-I’m-trying-to teach you? (with the 15 percent dominating).

Instead, they became conveyors of something precious — their dreams and goals.  My vocation, besides getting them to look up spellings and AP style rules and gather and structure information, was to bring them closer to those dreams, by whatever means. Even a change to a new major, if necessary.

Over the past 17 years, I’ve tried to keep that thought before me.  Yes, sometimes students make it difficult, when they don’t seem to have many dreams beyond the next Wednesday night Toomers Corner pub crawl.  Sometimes they have to be reminded that unlike animals who eat, sleep, breed, and annoy other animals, they have the capacity to aspire to make their lives better and to simply be better.

I also know that each student is a treasure to someone, even one parent or a sibling or an aunt/uncle.  And that treasure is committed to Auburn University — with fear and trust, but mostly fear — for the next 4-plus years.  Our job is to return that treasure with something valuable, increased knowledge, so that society can benefit as well.

In spring of 2007, after the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech, I attended an on-campus vigil Auburn students conducted in front of Samford Hall.  I saw one of my students, Megan, there.  I wondered how her parents felt after realizing that twenty-seven families had lost the students they had sent to Virginia Tech.

After the vigil, I put my arm around Megan and said, “For all that we (faculty) give you guys a hard time, it would devastate me if anything like this happened to you.”

In the seven years since, students have died.  A suicide in February brought two of his fellow students to my office with questions of whether they could have done more.  We couldn’t know.  All we knew was that his pain overrode everything else in his life, including his dreams for his life and his parents who considered him their treasure.

And when a 23-year-old recent Auburn football player dies in a wreck on a rural Georgia road, it brings it home again.  Why did God give me and not Philip Lutzenkirchen July 30, 2014, and the days that followed?

As I said, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I will find it in each day that follows.  And I know that a big part of that answer involves my students, and their dreams.

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To Philip Lutzenkirchen

First published in The War Eagle Reader. You can link to it here.

My first memory of Philip Lutzenkirchen was when he had scheduled an appointment with our Communication and Journalism department chair during his official recruiting visit in 2008.

The chair at the time, Dr. Mary Helen Brown, referred me to his highlight video on YouTube.  Plenty of high-high-highlights.  My favorite was of him blocking a punt and running it in for a touchdown.  He didn’t exactly run it in.  He stood head and shoulders over everyone on the field, so he basically jogged in, swatted the ball away from the punter’s foot, picked it up and carried it into the end zone.  Opposing players jumped around him like Jack Russells leaping at a man holding up a Frisbee.  Lutzie made it to the end zone no problem.

Now, with his tweet Saturday that he will miss the rest of the season, it’s fitting to remember what he brought to Auburn.  I always called him “the mayor of Auburn University,” with his popularity and influence on campus.  It is sad to see it come to an end.

Of course, Lutzenkirchen signed with Auburn, even in the midst of the Tuberville turmoil.  In one of his tweets, he said he never regretted his decision to come to Auburn.  Nor did his fans.

Philip actually enrolled as a major in the department (good job, MHB), so we remained in cordial contact throughout.  At one time, I think he was a radio-TV-film major, though he ended up majoring in communication.  RTVF seemed a natural major, particularly after his ESPN fame for a highlight where he tipped an end-zone pass to a teammate as he leaped out of bounds.

The clip earned some studio time on ESPN – an appearance that, he admitted, he was not pleased with.  He was too rough on himself.  It wasn’t worse than 90 percent of the interviews you see on ESPN (and better than almost all of Skip Bayless’s and Stephen A. Smith’s rants).

The summer after his freshman year (which included touchdown receptions against LSU and Mississippi State), I requested that he serve as press conference guest for our 2010 Summer Journalism Workshop for high school students, noting that he was after all a major and that would help us recruit.

He and Morgan Toles, a women’s basketball player who was also a major (and who sadly also had to stop playing for injury reasons) did a great job.  Lutzie had a good sense of humor, even when one young lady’s press conference question was, “Are you dating anyone? Kidding!”  From an instructional perspective, that gave me a great opportunity to warn the students about asking creepy questions.

Trivia buffs: At that conference, we learned the meaning of his name: “light” (lutz) “of” (en) “the church” (kirchen).  I’ll leave further comment on that to the ode-sters.

The press conference, obviously, was the impetus of Philip’s contributions to Auburn’s dream season.  Big TD passes against South Carolina, Georgia (twice) and, of course, Alabama – the catch that gave birth to his TD dance deemed “the Lutzie.”  A somersault-capped catch in the national championship game.

Even in 2011, as Auburn struggled on many fronts to an 8-5 season, Lutzenkirchen had his moments – the best being a one-handed grab against Ole Miss that made the Top 10 for several of ESPN’s endless array of Top 10 segments.  Unfortunately, the catch also led to the first of many injuries that Philip would endure – a torn labrum that required shoulder surgery.

But as he remained at Auburn, his favor among the students increased – enhanced by a decision to return for his senior year.  Whether in person or on his popular Twitter account (a weird stretch of letters – oh wait, it’s his last name), Lutzie became something of a campus icon.

So as this year descended into something of a disaster, fans felt a particular heart tug for the tight end who had given a lot to his school.  When the second half against Arkansas opened with an illegal procedure by #43, it seemed a fitting indication of how bad things had gotten.

Then, as fans processed another disappointing loss, this time to Vanderbilt, word that a hip injury would end Lutzenkirchen’s career at Auburn deepened the sadness.

Lutzenkirchen’s tweet – “Sad to say it is over at Auburn. Thanks for the opportunity to play in O&B on Saturdays. It was the best decision of my life to be a Tiger.” – was an appropriately classy handoff by the popular player and sparked hundreds of replies.

Philip is a frequent presence in Tichenor Hall, as one of our majors.  He is friendly to all of the professors he encounters.  It’s one of the qualities that makes college football so special.  These are not just players who score touchdowns to make fans’ lives better.  They are our students and classmates, and we appreciate them in that regard.

He had decided to time his academic progress so that he graduated after his final season – no cursory graduate studies.  I usually represent the department at fall graduation (it’s the coolest weather, so the most comfortable for those bulky caps and gowns), and I look forward to the moment when Ric Smith announces his name as a student one last time.

I will remember another moment as well.  Soon after the semester began, as I walked from my car parked at Comer toward the Science Center, I heard a voice call: “How’s it going?”  I turned.  Philip was waving to me as he called over his shoulders.  Like I told my students, that doesn’t say as much about me as it does about Philip Lutzenkirchen.