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Dead FAMU drum major's parents speak out about son — and against culture of hazing

Couple are setting up hotline, launching campaign to protect other potential victims

By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel

8:22 PM EST, December 6, 2011

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From the time Robert Champion was a 6-year-old kid watching his first parade, he knew his destiny. Awestruck at the sight of a drum major leading a band along the streets of Atlanta, the boy began to beg his parents for any kind of musical instrument he could get his hands on.

Then he took a broom handle and marched around his driveway, choreographing his steps to a tune only he could hear.

He was a natural.

"When he performed, he would come alive on that field," his mother, Pamela Champion, said. "He used to tell the younger students that you had to do your best — and then you had to do better. You had to outdo yourself."

Champion, who was working to put himself through college at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, sent his parents a photo from his last performance Nov. 19 in Orlando, at the Florida Classic football game between FAMU and longtime rival Bethune-Cookman University. In it, Champion is poised in full dress on the field, lunging to one side to meet the gaze of a pint-sized drum major from a child's band.

"This picture says so much," Champion texted. "It's like I'm looking at myself."

It was the last time his parents would hear from their 26-year-old son. Hours later, he was dead after what authorities said was an apparent hazing ritual aboard a parked band bus. A panicky band mate told a 9-1-1 operator that Champion had vomited and then lost consciousness. Some claim he had been repeatedly punched in the stomach.

His death has sparked a national uproar over hazing, which a growing number of students say was part of the culture at FAMU and other schools where powerhouse marching bands carry more prestige than winning football teams. The Florida Board of Governors, Orange County Sheriff's Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, as well as the university, have vowed to investigate. Already, longtime FAMU band director Julian White has been fired — a move he is protesting.

White as well as current and former band mates attended Champion's funeral in Decatur, Ga., last week, where they saluted him and spoke of his gentle, gracious nature and great talent.

"We don't feel any anger," his father, also named Robert Champion, said this week from Decatur. "We're a Christian people, and anger is not going to bring my son back. What we're trying to do is aim our feelings toward a solution to the problem."

The couple have hired an attorney and filed notice of intent to sue the college. But their purpose, they said, is to change a culture of secrecy and abuse.

In the weeks since his son's death, the elder Champion said, other current and former band musicians have offered condolences, then whispered to him of their own hazing experiences. He and his wife, both 56, are working to set up a hotline so hazing victims can anonymously report their cases to someone who will investigate.

Pamela Champion said she wants this to be an ongoing campaign.

"We're looking at doing an anti-hazing awareness month, so that every year we can talk about this again," said Pamela, a bank-operations manager. "Otherwise, if we just do it one time and it's forgotten, then you'll see it start creeping back. And hazing needs to end."

They've set up a Facebook page, "Drum Major For Change! Robert D. Champion" to pay tribute to their son and promote the mission they've undertaken as his legacy.

Hardworking but with a playful streak, Champion learned early in life that climbing to the top meant little if you didn't reach back to lend a hand to others. He took up clarinet in grade five and joined the middle-school band a year later. By eighth grade, he was allowed to march with the acclaimed Southwest DeKalb High School Band and came home from his first football-game performance to announce he would become its head drum major.

In 10th grade, he got his wish. And though his mother suggested he sit out band his first year of college to focus on his studies, she knew even as she said it that he wouldn't listen. Sure enough, by the end of the first semester, he was part of the famous Marching 100, as FAMU's band is nicknamed. It has played at presidential-inauguration parades and Super Bowls, and was slated to play at Carnegie Hall, the first historically black college to do so.

Champion juggled a full-time job for the school's cafeteria, his studies as a music major, band practices and performances with trying to mentor others — a schedule that meant it would take him longer to reach graduation.

Each time he returned to Decatur, his mother said, he met with middle- and high-school band students to work on their choreography and music skills, and he often volunteered to counsel at band camps. Because of the family's last name, Robert and his two sisters had been taught they had to set the bar high.

Sometimes at night, he would phone his mother to play a piece of music he had created on his computer — perhaps R&B, gospel, jazz, rap or some mixture thereof. He dreamed of one day being director of his own band and choreographing its routines.

One of six drum majors for FAMU, Champion was destined to become its lead next year, White has said. Instead his final gesture was to donate his organs to others in need, a fulfillment of the donor card he had signed long before he thought it would ever be needed.

Now, his parents have taken up the baton.

"We're going to try to keep his name out there, to keep his legacy alive, to help anyone else who is going through the same thing and doesn't know what to do," said the elder Robert Champion. "We will do anything possible, wherever possible, to make sure this never happens again."

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503