FAMU hazing victim Robert Champion marched to his own beat
In death, FAMU drum major has become an anti-hazing symbol
Robert D. Champion IV — a kid with a name made for destiny — didn't care who saw him there or what they might have thought. In grade school he would parade like that for an hour or more at a stretch, knees high, arms cocked, ticking off the beats of a drum only he could hear.
"The family always said Robert just walks to a different beat," says his mother, Pamela Champion, who taught her son to be a man of his word, to do what he set out to do. "He always just did things different — not like what most kids do, even when he was little."
It would make him a role model to some, a target to others.
Blessed with enormous natural talent, Champion also had a work ethic that even his teachers marveled at, eventually making him one of the youngest head drum majors ever at Southwest DeKalb High School, where band is king.
Grammy-winning songwriter Khalil Walton was a year older than Champion and decidedly less interested in band when he transferred to Southwest during his sophomore year. Champion never lobbied him directly to join — that wasn't his style — but his ambition was contagious.
"I imagine Robert was like the CEO of some innovative tech company like Google or something," Walton says. "They're just so adamant about this thing, so consumed by it — and you don't even understand it or why they're trying to persuade you."
The two would head to band class at 4 each weekday afternoon, then stay for rehearsal until 8 or 9 at night. Robert would head home, only to practice another hour or two.
"If I didn't feel like practicing anymore, I still had to, just to keep up," Walton says. "I knew if we had a new song to learn that Robert was going to come in the next morning, and he was going to know it by memory and not miss a note."
In a suburb with a strong black professional class, Champion saw the path he wanted early and clearly. He would rise to head drum major at Southwest and then at Florida A&M University, which had one of the top marching bands in the nation. Upon graduation, he would return to Decatur, Ga., to teach and be band director at Southwest, just as others had done before him. And after his day job, perhaps he would dabble in music composition and production.
For most of his 26 years, Champion would march steadily toward those goals, sidelined only briefly when he needed to bring up his grades or earn money for tuition. He was never more alive, his family says, than when he was on the field, performing.
Then, last Nov. 19, as Robert's younger sister, Brittany Champion, was preparing for a Saturday night out, a call came from Orlando.
"A friend of mine from FAMU told me something had happened to Robert," she remembers. "And then the band director came on and said they had rushed him to the hospital, and they needed to get my parents' number. … I got worried, but I was thinking, 'This is Robert — nothing bad ever happens to him. He's going to be fine.' "
'He found his gift'
It's hard to overstate the prestige of the marching band at Southwest DeKalb High School, where performances outshine the sporting events they punctuate.
Though the school outside Atlanta has produced its share of NFL prospects, "you come to Southwest DeKalb primarily for the band, not the football," says Pastor John Tatum, the recently retired leader of Riverside Baptist Church in Decatur.
The Marching Panthers have performed for two U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, and at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York; the Carnival of Flowers in Nice, France; and the opening ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. Being in the band at Southwest often leads to scholarships, often at FAMU, and alumni have gone on to work in pop, jazz and classical music.
A decade ago, when Robert Champion was a junior there, the school was selected to be the fictional "Atlanta A&T University" band for the movie "Drumline."
Champion spent long hours on campus, being filmed going through his steps, so the actors could learn their moves from him.