The young man stood at the front of Bus C, his ribs rising and falling with each breath. Before him stood about 20 members of one of the best marching bands in the world, Florida A&M's Marching 100, which had performed for presidents and before a televised Super Bowl audience of 106 million, and now, on a Saturday night last fall, was gathered in the dark inside Bus C, parked behind the Rosen Plaza Hotel off International Drive in Orlando, not far from Pizza Hut and T.G.I. Friday's. The doors of Bus C were closed and the lights were out, and at the rear of the bus sat two panting people who had been beaten about the torso and were now trying to recover. The man was about to vomit and the woman would later tell detectives that she had been hit and kicked until she was unconscious. The young man waiting at the front of the bus was Robert Champion.
He played the clarinet, played it so well that he had rocketed through the ranks of the band and had been appointed drum major, one of six students who wore white uniforms and carried batons and led the band, high-stepping, onto the field. He was in line to become head drum major the following year, the equivalent to a starting quarterback on a world-famous team of 350.
Champion had one last challenge: endure a painful, clandestine ritual that was both intensely important inside the band and illegal in the eyes of the law. He didn't have to do it. He volunteered. Bus C was reserved for the percussionists, mostly upperclassmen, the largest and rowdiest section in the band, and if you wanted their respect and loyalty, you had to pass their test.
The police called it hazing. State law called it a felony. The marching band called it Crossing Bus C. Touch the back wall and it's over. Two people had crossed already. Two people survived. Now it was Robert Champion's turn.
From the back of the bus, someone shouted:
"Send the n----- through."
• • •
The final score of the Florida Classic on Nov. 19, 2011, was 26-16 in favor of the Wildcats from Bethune-Cookman University. But who remembers that?
But that halftime show. Just before the Marching 100 took the field, before announcer Joe Bullard belted, "From the highest of seven hills in Tallahassee, Florida, welcome to what has not only become known as America's band, but also one of the most exciting bands in the world," a rainbow formed over the Florida Citrus Bowl, as if the heavens were watching.
And the band was something to behold. Musicians formed a boat, and an airplane, and the United States of America, and the Eiffel Tower, and the word PARIS, all while dancing and marching and booming music for 15 minutes as the crowd cheered. The style, the moves, the swagger, all of it was invented six decades before when a man named William Foster began choreographing performances no one had ever seen before. He invented some 30 different trademark moves like "the rattler" and "the death march" that made people forget the rigid routines of the white bands of the era.
The popularity of the band grew and the style spread to other colleges and high schools, prompting the Marching 100's unofficial motto: "Always imitated, never duplicated." Foster died in 2010, but by then the band had represented the United States at France's Bastille Day celebration, played at the inauguration parades for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, with Kanye West on the Grammy Awards, and in commercials for Coca-Cola and Welch's Grape Soda. Foster also had instilled in the program a code of conduct that encouraged the "highest quality of character."
Out in front that day was Champion, 26, of Decatur, Ga., who had spent much of his life dreaming about being drum major at FAMU. He had made the squad that spring, after two intense auditions, and earned a leadership role in a band with a proud tradition.
"A drum major, especially a FAMU drum major, is bigger than any of us," said drum major Shawn Turner, in a documentary filmed the year before about the elite group. "When a FAMU drum major comes in the room, it just lights up."
But there was a sentiment among some band members that drum majors abused their authority. They doled out discipline, like laps around the field or pushups, in a unit of hundreds of musicians who practiced for two hours each day, who had to stick to a training regimen not all that different from athletics. Drum majors were the police commissioners of the band. They were special, the director's confidants, and they rode to the Florida Classic in a stretch limousine while the others took charter buses.
Even though 6-foot-1, 235-pound Champion, with a shaved head and warm smile, was liked by most (he'd occasionally let someone slip into the cafeteria where he worked without paying), he had been catching grief from some members of the band. They challenged his newfound authority and openly disrespected him.
"Many people in the band thought Robert was homosexual, and they did not care for him because he always upheld the rules," drum major Keon Hollis, 22, said in a sworn statement. "They did not care for him as a drum major simply for these reasons."
Hollis and Champion were close. They were "Squad Dogs" since they'd made drum major together. Hollis was dealing with the same issues as Champion. He knew one way to earn the band's respect.
Champion's parents have said he opposed hazing, but, according to Hollis, the two talked about crossing Bus C often. Champion had planned to do it earlier in the season, but another drum major talked him out of it.
"Many people in the band were already in Bus C, so those individuals would give us the hardest time and disrespect simply because we did not cross yet," Hollis said. They aimed to change that.
• • •
It's hard to pinpoint when hazing started in the FAMU marching band, but plenty of alumni have stories about the initiations into secret societies like the Clones, for clarinetists, or Red Dawg Order, band members from Georgia. Some still participated in the beatings, or urged young musicians to engage.
Julian White, the band director since 1998, called out the alumni in an email before the Florida Classic, asking them to "not return and look down on people who follow university regulations by not participating."
White had worried about hazing. He sent a warning memo to FAMU administrators after a Morehouse College fraternity pledge died in 1989, the same year Keon Hollis was born. But his efforts — making members sign pledges and attend workshops and lectures from the campus police — were futile. In 1998, a band member had kidney failure after he was paddled some 300 times. A similar incident in 2001 left a trumpeter hospitalized. Three weeks before the Florida Classic, members of the Red Dawg Order beat a female clarinetist until she couldn't walk. The week before the Classic, White suspended 26 students for hazing.
"Not everybody does participate in it," Sean Hobson, 23, told the Orlando Sentinel after he pleaded guilty to beating the clarinetist in 2011. "But it happens."
• • •
After the Classic, as the band was boarding the buses, Dante Martin, who was known as the "president of Bus C," approached Hollis. According to Hollis' statement, Martin asked him if he planned to cross that night.
At the Rosen Plaza, Hollis told Champion his plan. Champion, Hollis said, decided to join him.
"I just want to get it over with," Champion told him.
The two changed into street clothes. Hollis took a shot of vodka. Then they walked across the parking lot, toward Bus C.
• • •
Before the crossing comes the hot seat, and many people described the practice to police. On the bus, in transit, one of the Bus C leaders walks to the front and taps you on the shoulder. You step backward down the aisle, sit in the rear of the bus and put your head between your legs.
"They put a blanket over my head and I was, like, in crash position. And then they start beating me," Requesta Harden, a 21-year-old percussionist who was beaten that day on the way to the game, told to detectives from the Orange County Sheriff's Office. "Then I couldn't, couldn't breathe, so I got up. And then I ran to the front."
Those giving the punishment play cadences with drumsticks on your back. The beatings last several minutes. Harden grew ill and passed out after hers and couldn't perform with the marching band that day.
After enduring three or four hot seats, you are ready to cross over.
• • •
Dante Martin met them at the door of the 56-seat motor coach, according to Hollis. Martin told Champion to sit on the right and Hollis on the left. He told them to bend over and keep their heads down.
Champion had not had a hot seat before, so Martin told some others to take care of him. They did, punching him, kicking him, and hitting him with sticks as he covered his head and tried not to move.
As they beat Champion, the first crossing began. Lissette Sanchez, 19, had bad kidneys and asked if they could avoid hitting her there. When she made it to the back of the bus, she was struggling to breathe and blacked out, she told detectives.
Hollis was next. Martin told him to remove his shirt and raise his arms. Hollis held the luggage racks while Martin and April Tarpley "prepped" him by slapping his bare chest and back repeatedly, he said. When they finished, Hollis ran toward the back. He was punched and kicked and smacked with a drum strap and beaten with drum mallets. He fell and a swarm of bodies collapsed on top of him. Someone hit him with a yellow CAUTION WET FLOOR cone. "Roof him," he heard someone say, instructions to lift him to the roof and drop him on the floor.
When he finally touched the back wall, his entire body was sore and he was exhausted and nauseated and missing a shoe. And he was alive.
• • •
It sounds barbaric. Pointless even. But experts say that's a narrow view. Hazing has benefits. It can facilitate life-long commitments and strengthen loyalty to a group or cause. Those bonds can lead to jobs, protection, a better life.
"It's not a linear story. It's not that hazing is all bad, and hazers are perpetrators, and all those being hazed are victims," said Gregory Parks, a law professor at Wake Forest University who studies hazing. "If you don't acknowledge the value that it brings, then you're not an honest broker."
Parks points to the military, police departments, churches and even law firms that engage in types of hazing. Hazing is not antisocial behavior. And it's not carried out by psychopaths. Those punches and kicks on Bus C came from students who spent hours a day marching and playing music.
"You can have the most sincere, good-hearted person, and when you put them in these contexts, the situation almost demands a certain conduct," said Parks.
"Your identity is as a part of the group," said Shayne Jones, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. "You're no longer an individual."
You're a part of something bigger. Something more powerful.
• • •
Robert Champion stripped off his white T-shirt, adrenaline surging, and ran into the dark tangle of fists and feet and drumsticks. Hollis couldn't see what was happening to Champion from his seat in the back. But he could hear the punches and kicks making contact, he said. There were so many people.
When Champion made it halfway, Hollis could see his friend fall, and he could see the mob grab him by the legs and drag him back to where he had started. Minutes ticked by as Champion fought, scrambling slowly down the 45 feet of aisle. At one point, the mob pushed him into a seat and he couldn't break out. Someone hung from the overhead luggage rack and appeared to be stomping him.
Hollis said two or three other drum majors were trying to help, but they weren't doing much good against the mob. Shawn Turner, Hollis said, jerked Champion free and, finally, after more than five minutes of fighting shadows, Robert Champion's fingertips touched the back wall.
He sat on the ground, exhausted, chest heaving. He asked for water and someone handed him Gatorade.
The bus began to empty. The drum majors left, but Champion did not follow. Hollis vomited in the parking lot. Jonathan Boyce climbed back on the bus to help Champion. A few others were still there.
Champion had begun to panic, Boyce said. He was freaking out, saying he couldn't breathe and couldn't see even though his eyes were wide open. And then he passed out.
They felt for a pulse. They dragged Champion again down the aisle, to the front of the bus. Darryl Cearnel began CPR. Robert Champion vomited. His temperature began to climb.
Henry Nesbitt called 911 at 9:46 p.m. He told a dispatcher that his drum major was throwing up and had stopped breathing, but he said nothing about the beating. A few minutes later an ambulance pulled into the lot and loaded Champion into the back.
In the following days, as the police investigation unfolded, witnesses to Champion's beating would whisper about lawyers and snitching, would lie under oath, change their stories, deny they were on the bus and say it was too dark to see anything. Most would say they were trying to help Champion, not hurt him. They'd say he was a friend, a "real good guy." One man, Benjamin McNamee, would say he was trying to make it appear like he was stomping on Champion, but he was actually just jumping on the seat. Another, Caleb Jackson, would say he was "just standing there." Another, Ryan Dean, would first say he was not on the bus that night, and then say he had left his glasses on the bus and was pushing through the crowd to find them. Another, Bryan Jones, would say he got on the bus that night to fetch his cigarette lighter, that's all.
Champion's autopsy would show extensive, widespread contusions over his chest, right shoulder, arms and back, extensive bleeding in his tissues. The medical examiner would say he died from hemorrhagic shock due to internal bleeding from blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident. Police would arrest 12 people on felony hazing charges, including drum majors Jonathan Boyce, Jarrod Deas, Shawn Turner and Rikki Wills. The number of arrests made it one of the largest cases ever built around a hazing incident.
The Marching 100 would be suspended and would not perform in 2012. The band director and university president would resign. The first of the suspects would plead no contest to a third-degree felony, and a judge in Orlando would sentence him to house arrest, two years of probation and 200 hours of community service. Robert Champion's mother would stand in court and ask a question: "How long can you obscure the truth and straddle the fence and keep up the delusion of innocence and live this life?"
"You and I," she would say, "both know you will never get away."
That night, though, paramedics worked quickly, fruitlessly, word spreading through the hotel hallways that something had gone terribly wrong, the ambulance racing toward Dr. P. Phillips Hospital. There on the gurney, six hours after his last performance, lay the lifeless body of Robert Champion, drum major for Florida A&M's Marching 100, from the tallest of seven hills in Tallahassee, one of the most exciting bands in the world.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.