The Florida Classic was near, and drum major Robert Champion said he wanted more respect from his peers.
“I’m thinking about doing Bus C,” Champion told Melvina Hunter, a senior music student from Atlanta.
Hunter sat in Florida A&M’s cafeteria, surprised at what Champion was saying. She respected him a lot.
“I was like, ‘Really, Robert?” Hunter said. “’No, it’s not going to make you any better of a person.’”
Two weeks later in Orlando, the Florida Classic ended and the Marching “100” band arrived to the Rosen Plaza Hotel after the halftime show.
Less than an hour after settling into their rooms, Hunter said band members started getting alarming text messages.
Hunter’s hotel roommate and several other friends had ridden to events on Bus C in the past. They had received the news much sooner than others in the hotel. The police had not showed up yet.
“I heard that he had collapsed on the bus,” Hunter recalled, “and that he had stopped breathing.”
David Martin, a third-year biology student from Miramar and member of the Marching “100,” noticed a lot of traffic on his drive back to the hotel. Red ambulance lights swirled and brightened the city sky as Martin and his mother got closer to the hotel.
Martin’s second performance in the Florida Classic was in 2011. His mom had traveled from Miramar to watch him perform both years.
“I’m expecting to come to a room filled with a whole bunch of saxophone freshmen, and we’re all just celebrating, happy, hyped,” Martin said.
However, soon after arriving to the hotel, band members began asking if others had gotten a text about Champion passing away.
“Out of nowhere, we were told to go to our rooms,” Martin said. “We had heard that it was legit – like no, this wasn’t a prank – this was real life.”
Martin said he had to compose himself and tried to console everyone in the room.
Rumors were going around and Martin did not want to jump to conclusions. He had heard that Champion had a heart attack while on Bus C. Most band students knew about Bus C.
“I was just like, ‘Oh man, stuff’s about to go down,” Martin said.
Meanwhile, Hunter was furious. All band members were called into a giant lobby. Member after member filled the room with band staff present. Then-Director of Bands Julian White broke the news to the students.
“He told us, ‘Robert has passed away,’ and then we all prayed and went to our rooms,” Martin said.
He did not ride back with the band. Instead, he rode home to Miramar with his mom.
Developments after Champion’s death took band members and the FAMU community on a whirlwind of emotions.
The music department, and the rest of the university, became the subject of the national media spotlight.
Students and administrators marched to the Governor’s Mansion when Gov. Rick Scott urged the resignation of then- President James H. Ammons as the community still mourned a loss. Eventually, White would retire, followed by the resignation of Ammons, and the university tried to address hazing by pushing for change in the culture of student organizations.
In the time since White and Ammons’ departure, the university has had an open search for a band director, a president and two new positions, a compliance officer for the music department and a special assistant to the president who will oversee anti-hazing efforts.
The band’s suspension in May by Ammons, which will be in effect for at least one year, hit the students hardest.
“To find out it was only for a year, I was honestly surprised,” Hunter said. “I thought we were going to get snatched for at least ten years because this is a life we’re talking about.”
Hunter, Martin, and David Lindberg, a music education student from Baltimore who also performed at last year’s Florida Classic, each agree that many band students were upset about the suspension.
Lindberg said his friends outside of the band did not sympathize with band members. He said non-band members were upset.
“People had a lot of questions,” Lindberg said. “They didn’t understand why stuff had to go that level, and they had a right to feel that way – I felt that way as well.”
Besides criticism, band members have had to deal with restrictions from rehearsals and sectionals as an organization. Anything related to the Marching “100” is forbidden during its suspension.
“A rule that was also implemented was that ensembles that had marching band members would not be allowed to perform,” Lindberg said.
He said they have since been able to negotiate this with the FAMU administration. Some performances of the wind ensemble and the symphonic band have been allowed, but under strict supervision Lindberg said.
He also said the music-related coursework for music students has been allowed.
Martin said band members have to wait for a staff member to open the door for them to check out instruments. However, she said the change has not affected the mood in the music building.
“It’s the same environment,” Martin said. “People are still friendly to each other.”