LITHONIA, Ga. — Robert Champion fell in love with music at about age 6 when he saw a marching band at a parade in downtown Atlanta. So mesmerized by the festivities, he came home, took out pots and pans and started banging away like a little drummer.
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His passion led him to marching bands from middle school through college. He was drum major for the famed Marching 100 band of Florida A&M University, a group that has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations. The prestige also brought a “culture of hazing” and a secret world that played a role in Champion’s death, his family said.
“It needs to stop. The whole purpose is to put this out there and let people know there has to be a change,” Champion’s mother, Pam, said Monday at a news conference.
On Nov. 19, after the school’s football team lost an away game to rival Bethune-Cookman, Champion collapsed on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel. The 26-year-old junior had been vomiting and complained he couldn’t breathe shortly before he became unconscious.
When authorities arrived about 9:45 p.m., Champion was unresponsive. He died at a nearby hospital.
Authorities have not released any more details, except to say hazing played a role. An attorney representing Champion’s family also refused to talk specifics.
“We are confident from what we’ve learned that hazing was a part of his death. We’ve got to expose this culture and eradicate it,” Christopher Chestnut said. “There’s a pattern and practice of covering up this culture.”
Since Champion’s death, the school has shuttered the famed marching band and the rest of the music department’s performances. The longtime band director, Julian White, was fired.
The college also announced an independent review led by a former state attorney general and an ex-local police chief in Tallahassee, where the historically black college is based.
White, who believes he was unfairly dismissed, said Monday that he had suspended band members for hazing-related incidents before Champion died. White said he feared the death could lead to the end of the storied marching band.
Hazing has a long history in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the band is coveted and the performances are sometimes revered as much as the school’s sports teams.
FAMU has been at the center of some of the worst cases. In 2001, former FAMU band member Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player, said he was paddled around 300 times and had to go to the hospital.
The university’s president said the school had been investigating hazing in the band before Champion’s death.
Champion’s parents said their son never spoke of hazing. Robert Champion Sr. said he talked to his son just a few days before his death and everything was fine.
“I wanted to believe stuff like that wouldn’t happen,” he said. “I would ask my son questions. ‘Is there anything you need to tell me? Let me know.’ He told me, ‘Dad everything is going OK. I’m working, trying to go to school and practice.’”
Champion dreamed of leading marching bands. As a child, he would use a broom handle to mimic a band director’s baton. At one point, he designed his own drum major uniform, his mother said.
“You put him on a field in a performance and he would give you a show,” she said.
His first instrument was the clarinet, which he learned to play in the fifth grade. A middle school teacher recognized his talent and he was tapped to lead the school’s orchestra and perform with the Southwest DeKalb High School band as an eighth grader. He could also sing and play keyboards.
Chapel Hill Middle School band director Natalie Brown said she’ll never forget his outgoing personality and phenomenal musicianship.
“He was always smiling. He never gave me a hard time,” she said. “If class was about to start, he’d get everyone quiet and start the warm-up process. He had the drum major mentality way back then.”
Champion wanted to one day teach music. He was so enthusiastic about performing that his mother would call him “Mr. Band.”
At times he struggled with his schoolwork and he didn’t immediately go to Florida A&M after high school. But he eventually enrolled, balancing a job with school and his commitments in the band. In late 2010, he was named drum major.
“His experience in the band was, in his words, great. Robert was happy,” his mother said. “He loved the band and everything that went with it. He loved performing. That was his life. You couldn’t take him out of it.”
The family’s attorney said they hoped a lawsuit would lead to changes at the school and prod other hazing victims to come forward.
“We want to eradicate a culture of hazing so this doesn’t happen again,” said Chestnut. “Hazing is a culture of, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ The family’s message today is: ‘Please tell.’”