In a colorful and somber ceremony at Beulah Missionary Baptist Church attended by FAMU President James Ammons; a busload of band members from FAMU’s “Marching 100”; SWD Principal Angela Bethea and band director John Seda; and hundreds of family, friends and SWD band alumni, Champion, 26, was remembered as a leader and a true champion who dreamed of becoming a FAMU drum major from the age of 5, when he first saw the band perform.
Family members said he was single-minded in the pursuit of that dream, even though he had to take semesters off to work and save money to return to college.
“The vines of his life were deeply rooted in his love of music,” the family said in his obituary in the homegoing program.
He was laid to rest in his green-and-orange FAMU drum major uniform. Thirteen drum majors from both bands offered a final salute in the church and escorted a horse-drawn carriage bearing the casket through the church parking lot onto Clifton Springs Road and back to the church. He was buried at Washington Park Cemetery in Decatur.
Speaker after speaker remembered Champion as a loving, kind, humble, passionate and dependable young man who loved music and the band. The underlying theme was that the alleged hazing that caused his death must end at the institution, which has recruited hundreds of DeKalb students, especially from SWD’s Marching Panthers.
Seda, who was Champion’s band director at Southwest DeKalb, said he was an active alumnus who always came back to check on the band he once led.
“His only concern – even if he had an exam, even if he had to go away for drum major training – his concern was to come back and say ‘How was your show, Mr. Seda?’” Seda said. “He would always tell the students, when it comes to performance, to always do your best and outdo yourself.”
Benjamin Stanford, who was a freshman when Champion led the Marching Panthers, remembered him as a real humble leader.
“He motivated people to do their best and be their best,” Stanford said. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Even as speakers focused on the good things about Champion, it was hard to forget the ugly incident that took his life.
Champion was found unconscious Nov. 19 on a bus parked at an Orlando, Fla., hotel after FAMU’s football team lost the Florida Classic to archrival Bethune-Cookman University. Police said Champion had been vomiting and complained that he couldn’t breathe shortly before collapsing. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
The cause has not yet been released, but police and FAMU officials have said Champion was hazed. No arrests have been made, but the university announced Thursday that it expelled four students for their role in Champion’s death. Ammons acknowledged the dismissals in a memo he sent earlier this week to members of the FAMU board of trustees. Ammons did not specify what the four students did but said that their dismissals were connected to Champion’s death.
On Nov. 23, longtime band director Julian White was fired on charges that he didn’t do enough to stop hazing. He has said his firing was unfair and he is fighting to get his job back.
White, who spoke at the funeral service, described Champion as his son. “This is a difficult time for me. You may see me smile, and you probably won’t see me cry because I’m happy that I knew Robert.”
John Tatum, pastor of Decatur’s Riverside Community Baptist Church where Champion was a member, said what happened to him was foolish and should never happen again.
“There are some things we have got to put a stop to,” he said. “We can no longer afford this kind of thing to happen again no more. We need to end this.”
FAMU has launched a full investigation.
Two days before the funeral, his parents, Robert and Pam Champion, along with their attorney, Christopher Chestnut, held a news conference to “call attention to a culture that cost a life” and announced that they intend to sue the university.
Ammons pledged to “stamp out hazing at FAMU.” He added, “I vow that Robert’s death will not be in vain.”