It is a tradition shaped over five decades by the architect of modern marching performance.
So celebrated, young musicians from all over flock to the nation's largest historically black university for their chance at halftime. The exclusive group of 370 endures football-like conditioning to master the bold, precise marching style set in motion years ago by their visionary, William Foster.
This is the Florida A&M Marching 100, the most famous marching band in the country, if not the world.
But two weeks after the death of drum major Robert Champion following a suspected hazing ritual, the band's future is unclear, an indefinite suspension in place and widely respected director Julian White dismissed.
The legacy is on its knees.
"I pray that our name will not be slandered in any way," said Eartha Butler, a 2003 band alum and FAMU doctoral student, "that we will hold up the legacy that Dr. Foster has built for the Marching 100."
FAMU's next commencement is Dec. 16. With the band and other performance ensembles out of commission, school officials will pipe in Pomp and Circumstance.
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On its face, the Marching 100 is a band that you play your way into. But underneath there are elite groups similar to sororities and fraternities with zero oversight.
There's the Clones for clarinets, White Whales for tubas, Red Dawgs for members from Georgia. Members who have "crossed over" into the sections, as the practice is known, wear T-shirts depicting their section's symbol on certain days, though it's contraband in the band hall.
Students say it's possible to stay in the band without being hazed. It just isn't likely.
Band hazing is a widespread and covert beast, stoked under the table by both ends of the Marching 100 experience.
Students arrive on campus either having been through rituals in high school or encouraged by role models to pursue membership in these elite band sects.
At the other end are alumni who wear their "war stories" from hazing as badges of pride, insisting young members take the next step so they too can feel success. Others are onetime members who remain in Tallahassee, often taking part in or hosting rituals. Operating outside of the university's control, they stand to lose nothing unless criminal charges are pursued.
Band director White took on these alumni just two days before Champion's death, sending a mass email begging them to stop perpetuating "the myth of various sectional names" with current students and participating in subversive activities. He had suspended 26 students for their parts.
"You should not return and look down on people who follow university regulations by not participating in sub-organizations," he wrote.
Hazing plagued White's tenure like nothing else. As early as 1989, he warned Foster that a Morehouse College fraternity pledge's death could happen to the Marching 100.
His memo foretold what's playing out now: heaps of administrative finger-pointing, and grave shame thrust upon a proud institution.
"I took the necessary steps that this tragedy could have been avoided," White said in a news conference last week, shifting the blame to FAMU administrators, who he said did not respond appropriately to his warnings over the years. FAMU President James Ammons cited White's "alleged misconduct and/or incompetence" in handling reports of hazing as reason for his dismissal.
White's varied efforts — pledge cards, workshops, speeches and suspensions — did not prevent Champion's death. Nor did they discourage a second known hazing case that emerged last week, when the parents of a Georgia clarinetist, freshman Bria Hunter, said she was hospitalized for thigh and knee injuries after beatings by FAMU band members this fall.
The band's most notorious hazing rituals occurred after practice and off campus. In 1998, Ivery Luckey drove to a dark house with plans of "crossing over" into the Clones. He was paddled about 300 times, leading to kidney failure and an extended hospital stay. And in 2001, trumpeter Marcus Parker suffered kidney failure after being paddled during an initiation.
John Michael Lee Jr., 32, joined the trumpet section in 2001 with Parker. They had the same choice to be in the trumpet subgroup, Screamin' Demons in Hollywood Hoods, he said. Lee said no thanks, even as more than half of his trumpet class took the "extra step."
"It's a choice that you make," he said. "You don't have to be in that to get leadership positions."
From the outside, it's not always obvious who crossed over and what they gained from doing it.
Luckey went his first year in the band without knowing how many peers joined the Clones. When he wanted to join in hopes of getting back on the field, his friends refused to say what it would take, keeping it a secret until Luckey decided to go for it.
"In any given year we can assume that there's any type of hazing going on," Lee said, "but we don't know what it is."
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Their unofficial motto is "always imitated, never duplicated."
It comes from William "the Law" Foster, who decided in the 1940s that he wanted to direct a black band as good or better than white marching bands.
The Kansas native didn't just match their caliber. His start at FAMU in 1946 ushered in an infectious performance style, mixing crowd-pleasing contemporary songs with the traditional marches of John Philip Sousa.
He forced fans to watch — with trademark choreography that features Fosterian moves like the pregame "death march," where members lift a leg at 90 degrees, switching in unison every few seconds. And there's "rattling," in which members chop their feet like pistons in an engine at triple-time, toes pointed, legs bent at 45 degrees.
Band formations are big, often literal interpretations of musical selections. A take on Soul for Real's Candy Rain got a giant field umbrella. Patriotic medleys boast tanks, planes, ships and stars. For Aaliyah's Rock the Boat, the band formed a boat and "floated" down field.
Foster would say, "We gotta make sure that 'Johnny Six-Pack' understands what we're doing," recalled two-time head drum major Timothy Barber, 37, of Miami.
The Miami Herald declared the group "the marchingest and playingest band in the land" in 1958, one of many sweeping compliments bestowed during Foster's 52-year tenure as director. He died last year.
The band's style got the attention of Coca-Cola and Welch's Grape Soda, who nabbed the 100 for commercials more than 30 years ago. In 2006, Kanye West and Jamie Foxx invited 20 members for a Grammy performance of Gold Digger.
"No one can supplant what Florida A&M represents," said Bernard Kinsey, a band alumnus of the '60s and a big donor, "because Foster created the whole process."
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Joining the orange-and-green fleet isn't easy. Not even for students who thought they had mastered FAMU's style in high school, like Barber.
You have to nail the audition, demonstrating proficiency in chromatic scales and sight-reading. From there first-timers move to the real test of worthiness: "predrill," an intense two-week summer orientation under the scorching Tallahassee sun.
It's the band's version of basic training. Students memorize dozens of songs and learn how to keep tone while performing bumps, grinds and booty shakes.
Survivors liken the physicality to football conditioning, endured in three-a-day practice sessions. Barber still remembers the blisters on his fingers from his drumsticks that week.
"It's grueling," said Henry Rivers, 37, a former head drum major from Jacksonville, "so just by the nature of it some people say, 'I'm sorry, this is just not for me.' "
Rivers joined in 1992 after years of playing the saxophone. He saw tapes of the band's performances in eighth grade and knew he wanted to be part of the pageantry.
One conditioning secret Rivers swears by: performing scales while doing jumping jacks.
"Your tone will be perfect in a week," he said.
Members practice according to their section for most of pre-drill. Rivers' freshman class got so emotional the first time the full band came together — playing Whitney Houston's I'm Your Baby Tonight — Foster had to stop the music to ask what was wrong.
"It was magical," Rivers said. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
• • •
The band has played at three presidential inaugurations and five Super Bowls.
Still, it's hard to top 1989, when the band represented the United States in Paris for France's 200-year Bastille Day celebration.
The St. Petersburg Times' Wilbur G. Landrey said his "spine tingled" as he watched the musicians perform songs by James Brown on the Champs-Elysees and Place de la Concorde, all while doing the Alf, funky chicken and moonwalk .
"How many people have seen anybody do all these contortions, bobbing, bending, swaying, wiggling and playing all at the same time?" Landrey wrote.
Former FAMU president Walter Smith trailed the band on the parade route, picking up fallen plumes so onlookers could not sweep them up as keepsakes.
In his final year as Florida governor, Bob Graham appeared on stage at the 1986 Capitol press skits in a crisp white uniform and declared himself governor for life. The Marching 100 stormed around him, blaring Hail to the Chief and When the Saints Go Marching In.
"If I was a dictator, that's the band I'd like to have with me," Graham said last week. "They're the best known in Florida, and they've been that way for 20 or 30 years."
• • •
Rivers didn't know what to expect when band director White called him for a private meeting after a long day of band camp in 1995. Already passed over for drum major, he walked into a dorm room and took a seat before White, Foster and seven drum majors.
They noticed how he drove to Tallahassee from his Lake City internship every day just to monitor his section during camp. They liked his leadership and dedication, even if it was over the top.
"Because of that," White told him, "I'd be honored if you would take the selection and be my eighth major."
White presented him a whistle and a baton. Rivers dropped to his knees and cried.
"It was like the feeling I got when graduating with my master's," he said. "It was like my first child, my second child, getting married."
Drum majors are like field generals, selected by the director after tryouts and responsible for everyone else in the band.
They get the spotlight treatment at games, leading the entrance onto the field, sloshing around in heavy capes, leaping into the air and landing splat into broken splits.
They're top dogs. So it doesn't make sense that Champion, at 26 and one of six drum majors, would allow himself to be hazed, Rivers said. What did he have to gain?
"What in the world is going on?" he said.
• • •
What will become of the Marching 100?
School officials await the findings of three key investigations — two by the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into Champion's death, and another by the Board of Governors into the administration's handling of past hazing reports from White. Already, four students have been expelled in connection with the Champion case.
Officials have not elaborated on the events leading to Champion's death, and the cause may not be known for three months.
White wants his job back. Band members won't talk on the record. Alumni are anxious, fearing a decision that would disband the 100.
But that's not a bad idea, said Walter Kimbrough, hazing expert and president of Philander Smith College in Arkansas. A hazing death by a sorority or fraternity would likely result in the closure of a chapter. Yes, the Marching 100 is a national treasure, he said, but officials must ask: Is the band too big to ban?
"We've got to really ramp up the sanctions," Kimbrough said. "Your chances of having a marching band hazing incident are zero if you don't have a functioning marching band."
Count trumpeter Lee among alumni who disagree. Unlike hazing by a sanctioned Greek organization, in which the pledging process is required for membership, the band does not condone these fraternitylike groups.
"The real answer that we have is there is nothing to prevent it," he said. "Students will circumvent security."
Gov. Rick Scott, who ordered the FDLE inquiry, said he wants to wait until the investigations are complete before commenting on the band's future.
"But we don't want to lose another life," he said.
Times staff researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird and staff writers Steve Bousquet, Tia Mitchell and Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.