- By Bo Emerson
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Looking back, the horror and betrayal Robert Champion’s family feels is crystallized in this fact: prominent in his funeral procession were several of those now accused in his death.
At least two of them had already been expelled by Florida A&M University in conjunction with the hazing incident that cost the drum major his life, but the family wasn’t aware of that.
"To be there, to participate as if you were totally innocent," said his mother, Pam Champion, sitting in her Decatur living room and shaking her head in disbelief. "It hurts."
Four of the 11 charged in Champion's Nov. 19 death are from Atlanta. Two of them, Jonathan Boyce, 24, and Shawn Turner, 26, were among his fellow drum majors who marched at the funeral in full regalia. Turner spoke at the service. Another drum major, Rikki Willis, also charged in Champion's death, said into a news camera after the funeral, "It was a pleasure to have ever met him."
The family had their suspicions. Three days after Champion was beaten unconscious during a band trip to Orlando, the Orange County sheriff suggested that hazing had been involved. But the autopsy had not been released, and at least one member of the band, the Marching 100, called the Champions to say their son collapsed out of the blue. "They said that one minute he was talking and laughing and the next minute he was laid out," Pam Champion said.
So Champion and her husband, Robert Champion Sr., went forward with the sort of funeral their son would have wanted. His green, red and white shako was placed near the coffin. He was surrounded by the members of the band that he considered family, fellow Rattlers who had hitched rides back and forth from Tallahassee to Georgia in the Champions' van.
Now those colleagues have been charged with pummeling the 26-year-old during a hazing ritual after the Florida Classic football game with Bethune-Cookman. Among those charged are two other Atlantans, Aaron Golson, 19 and Lasherry Codner, 20. Officials say fellow band members forced Champion and another student to walk a violent gantlet inside the band's bus that evening. The other student survived. Champion went into hemorrhagic shock and died.
Champion's death shined a spotlight on a culture of hazing in the Marching 100. He died weeks after another FAMU student, Atlantan Bria Hunter, was beaten so severely during a hazing ritual that a bone in her thigh was broken. Golson was also charged in that beating.
Indiana journalism professor Hank Nuwer, the author of "Wrongs of Passage," estimates more than 80 college students have been killed during hazing incidents in the past 100 years.
Most college hazing is associated with fraternities and sororities, but the FAMU band holds a unique status at the school. It has performed at presidential inaugurations, bowl games and Super Bowls, and is the face of the university. The high-flying drum majors, with their James Brown dance moves, are the top men in the Marching 100. Champion, 26, was slated to become head drum major after Boyce graduated, and for this reason, investigators have wondered why he would be subject to any hazing.
His parents suggest that their son was either forced into the bus or went in to help another student.
They could not say whether their son was friends with the four Atlantans accused in his death. But their son considered them part of an extended family.
Now the Champions say the band, which has been suspended, needs to be "cleaned up" before it is allowed back on the field.
They have created the Robert D. Champion Drum Major for Change Foundation to help fight hazing.
"This is not just a Champion fight," Robert Champion Sr. said. "This is a fight to save all our kids."