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Hundreds attend funeral for FAMU drum major Robert Champion

8:54 AM, Dec 1, 2011   |    comments
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FAMU drum major Robert Champion (CNN)

DECATUR, Ga. -- Mourners filled a church in Decatur, Georgia, Wednesday for the funeral of a Florida university drum major who died this month in what officials have called a hazing-related incident.

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PHOTOS: Robert Champion's Funeral

A line of people -- some of them wearing band uniforms -- filed past Robert Champion's open casket. He was wearing his Florida A&M University Marching 100 uniform and holding a baton.

As the service began, a group of drum majors draped his coffin with the university's flag.

The Rev. John Tatum called on the crowd to speak out against hazing and not to be complacent.

"I call on every mother, every father, every niece, every uncle, do what is necessary now to stop this tragedy so that it will never happen again," he shouted into a microphone as he pointed at the crowd of hundreds packed into the pews.
University President James H. Ammons pledged to "wage a campaign to stomp out hazing on the campus at FAMU."

Many in the crowd of mourners responded with cheers and applause.

"I vow as president of FAMU that Robert's death will not be in vain," Ammons said.

Music and memories filled the service for Champion, which lasted nearly three hours. Several speakers described him as a strong leader and the ideal drum major.

"Whenever Robert heard the sound of the drum, his knees raised, his toes pointed and he was on a mission to make the FAMU community proud," said Julian E. White, who has led the 420-member band since 1998.

The university moved to fire White shortly after Champion's death. He has hired an attorney to fight for his job has said he did everything he could to put a stop to hazing.

White made no mention of hazing at Tuesday's funeral. He said he considered Champion a son and regretted not telling him he had been selected to be the band's next head drum major.

"I loved that young man. The world is a better place because of Robert Champion," he said.

Wednesday's services at the Beulah Missionary Baptist Church come two days after Champion's family said they will sue Florida A&M University "to get answers."

"We are concerned about the culture of cover-up, that hazing has been covered up at the Band FAMU for generations," the family's lawyer, Chris Chestnut, said Monday.

The medical examiner has not issued a report on the cause of death of the 26-year-old student. But, Chestnut said, the facts that have emerged to date "point to the fact that hazing was a cause of Robert Champion's death, and it was under FAMU's watch."

"He loved the band -- so much, I always called him Mr. Band," Champion's mother, Pam Champion, told reporters of her son. "That was his life."

At a news conference with reporters Monday, she recalled the telephone call she received informing her of her son's death.

The call came shortly after her son had called to say he was coming home for Thanksgiving. "I thought it was some kind of mean joke. ... Maybe it's the wrong kid, maybe it's somebody else."

Champion became ill at an Orlando hotel on November 20 after a football game. He reportedly vomited in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe, authorities said.

Champion was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said last week that hazing was involved, but added that authorities were trying to determine an official cause of death. Under Florida law, any death that occurs as the result of hazing is a third-degree felony.

After the death, Ammons suspended all band performances and said he will convene a task force "to determine if there are any unauthorized and questionable activities associated with the culture of the Marching 100."

Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to state Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey asking the department to join the investigation "to assure that the circumstances leading to Mr. Champion's death become fully known, and that if there are individuals directly or indirectly responsible for this death, they are appropriately brought to justice and held accountable."




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