Hundreds of friends and family crowded the pews at a church near Atlanta, and Champion’s drum major uniform was on display next to his open casket. Members of the marching band from Southwest DeKalb High School, where Champion attended, performed in full regalia at the beginning and end of the service.
Beulah Missionary Baptist Church pastor John Tatum urged the crowd to stop the “foolish” hazing in college fraternities and marching bands.
“If there’s anything about this man’s legacy we need to put a stop to, it’s hazing,” he said to a chorus of amens. “I call upon every parent, every mother, every father … do what is necessary now to stop this tragedy from ever happening again.”
The 26-year-old junior was found dead Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel after the school’s football team lost to a rival. Police said Champion, a clarinet player, had been vomiting and complained he couldn’t breathe shortly before he collapsed, but they have not released any other details.
Since Champion’s death, Julian White, the band director at the historically black university in Tallahassee has been fired. The school has announced an independent probe, and the university president said he will work to end the long practice of hazing in the marching band.
Speaking at the service, White said Champion was like a son to him. He said he saw Champion shortly after he was found unconscious and he “looked in peace.”
“This is a difficult time for me. You may see me smile, and you probably won’t see me cry,” he said. “I’m happy that I knew Robert.”
The group that oversees Florida’s public universities announced Tuesday it wanted to investigate whether the school did enough to respond to hazing.
Champion fell in love with music when he was about age 6. He started in bands in middle school and his mother said he was so enthusiastic about performances she called him “Mr. Band.”
The Florida A&M band, known as the “Marching 100,” was one of the most prominent in the nation. The band has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations.
University president James Ammons pledged to “stamp out hazing at FAMU.”
“I vow that Robert’s death will not be in vain,” he said.