Eight former band mates saluted Champion by walking toward his open casket. They raised their batons in unison, then abruptly turned to show their capes embroidered with the letters: C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N. Near the end of the funeral, one of the college junior’s favorite songs, Flight of the Bumblebee, played over the loudspeaker.
Pastor John Tatum told hundreds of friends and family who crowded the church that it was time to end the “foolish” hazing in 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. Right now.”
The 26-year-old Champion 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 university’s band director, 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.
White said he saw Champion shortly after he was found unconscious and assured the family that 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.”
James Ammons, the school president, pledged to “stamp out hazing at FAMU.”
“I vow that Robert’s death will not be in vain,” he said.
The group that oversees Florida’s public universities announced Tuesday it wanted to investigate whether the school did enough to respond to hazing.
The funeral resonated with the music Champion was so passionate about.
The Southwest DeKalb High School marching band, where Champion attended, played somber melodies and were joined by an 18-member church choir behind his casket, where he lie wearing his college uniform, clutching a gleaming baton.
At the start of the service, Champion’s mother, Pam, squeezed her son’s hand a final time. His father, Robert Sr., whispered into his son’s ear.
The family’s attorney has said they intend to sue the school over the death.
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.”
He long dreamed of joining a marching band, and neighbors recalled seeing him patrolling his yard with a makeshift baton made of tape. He rose to become the leader of his high school band by his junior year, and was tapped as the drum major of Florida A&M’s prestigious “Marching 100” in late 2010. The band has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations.
James Seda, who leads the high school band, said Champion was an enthusiastic leader and outgoing musician with an amazing work ethic. He said he was thankful he was in Orlando to see Champion’s final show at halftime against Bethune-Cookman.
“His last performance is always his best performance,” he said. “He always outdoes himself.”