On a Friday night back in June, Hutson Mason got a text message from Philip Lutzenkirchen, a close friend from back home.
Football took Mason and Lutzenkirchen their separate ways after playing together at Lassiter High School in Marietta.
Lutzenkirchen went on to distinguish himself at Auburn, where his 14 touchdown catches were more than any other tight end in program history. Mason backed up SEC record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray at Georgia for four seasons.
They touched base about once a month. When they talked, it often wasn‚Äôt about football.
On something important, like when Mason was considering transferring from Georgia to get playing time elsewhere, Lutzenkirchen was a valuable sounding board.
‚ÄúHe would call me a lot,‚Äù Lutzenkirchen told a reporter in November before Mason was set to make his first college start for the Bulldogs in place of an injured Murray. ‚ÄúI always told him to kind of take a step back away from football and ask yourself if you‚Äôd rather have a degree from the University of Georgia or from a I-AA school that doesn‚Äôt have as good as an alumni base and as good of an education reputation. I think outside of football he really enjoys the school and the people he‚Äôs around. I think he really enjoys the football program as well. ‚Ä¶I always pushed him to stay at Georgia because I knew he would get a great opportunity for at least one, maybe two years.‚Äù
That opportunity for Mason‚Äôs only full season as a starter is now, and Mason believes that Lutzenkirchen will be with him in spirit.
Less than 48 hours after they last communicated, Lutzenkirchen was killed in the early morning of June 29 in a single-vehicle automobile accident near LaGrange. Lutzenkirchen was a passenger. The driver was Ian Davis, who spent time on the Georgia baseball team. He also was killed.
Days later, Mason was a pallbearer at the funeral of Lutzenkirchen, only 23.
‚ÄúJust having that relationship with him in high school,‚Äù Mason said, ‚Äúhe wasn‚Äôt just a friend. We had a great relationship. We talked all the time. We hung out when we went back home.‚Äù
When he met with media members on Friday as Georgia opened preseason practices, Mason wore a No. 43 button. That was Lutzenkirchen‚Äôs jersey number at Auburn.
That number is now on the practice fields in the end zones at Auburn.
That final time Lutzenkirchen and Mason connected Lutzenkirchen was checking in to ask Mason how his summer was going before his big season.
‚ÄúI can remember the feelings I got, it was good to hear from him because I always looked up to Philip,‚Äù Mason said. ‚ÄúHe texted me and said ‚ÄúI‚Äôll be rooting for you. I know I‚Äôm an Auburn guy. I probably wouldn‚Äôt admit this in public but I‚Äôm definitely going to be rooting for you.‚Äô I‚Äôm selling him out now. I‚Äôm sorry, man. Then he was like, good things happen to those who wait and you‚Äôve definitely put in your turn.‚Äô‚Äù
Mason said even talking about that now gave him chills. He described Lutzenkirchen as ‚Äúvery witty guy,‚Äù a ‚Äúsmart aleck,‚Äù but a ‚Äúgenuine guy,‚Äù who people gravitated towards.
Lutzenkirchen, who played his final season at Auburn in 2012, remembered back in November their times together cutting up ‚Äúwith youthful hijinks,‚Äù including some prank calls.
Mason‚Äôs first year as a starting quarterback at Lassiter was Lutzenkirhcen‚Äôs senior season.
They connected in a big way, with Lutzenkirchen making 72 catches for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.
‚ÄúTo have that conversation was kind of his goodbye,‚Äù Mason said. ‚ÄúIt gives me a lot of peace because I really know he‚Äôll be watching out over me. ‚Ä¶ I just feel so privileged and honored that the Lord would give me an opportunity to speak to him kind of and it wasn‚Äôt really me, it was him. He kind of had that desire that maybe I should reach out to Hutson. He didn‚Äôt know he was going to die the next night, but he went forward with that decision.‚Äù
Mason would like to come up with a way to honor his friend on game day as well.
He‚Äôs talked to Georgia‚Äôs equipment managers about putting something on the cap that he wears on the sideline and in postgame interviews.
Mason plans to keep wearing that No. 43 pin during the season ‚Äúto represent Philip and our relationship and how much I loved him. ‚Ä¶It gives me a lot of peace to go on and know that he‚Äôs watching, no doubt. Honestly, it kind of motivates me more to just kind of represent him to what he meant to me.‚Äù