"There were many, many nights I would pick him up from school, and it would be midnight and he'd still be at it," Pamela Champion remembers. "I'd be sitting in the car, waiting and waiting for him to come out, and eventually I'd have to just go in and get him. He would never say he was tired."
It almost seemed as if her son was born to play the role.
His father, Robert Champion III, had hoped his only boy — the second of his three children — would grow into an athlete. Dad had been a standout offensive and defensive end in high school, and before his son had even graduated from kindergarten, the elder Champion took him to a Pop Warner practice and, later, to a store that sold football uniforms.
"I put the football helmet on him — and he took that off. I put the shoulder pads on him — and he took those off," his father says. "And he finally said, 'Dad, I don't want to play no football!' "
The younger Champion did eventually take up tennis and basketball, but only because his sisters played those sports, and he wanted to beat them.
"He wasn't very athletic," says sister LaTisha Champion, three years his senior. "But when he picked up an instrument, he found his gift."
Young Robert saw his first parade when he was 6, and he was smitten. At first he played toy instruments — little drum sets and horns — but in the fifth grade he got his first real one, a clarinet, just as his mother had played when she was in school.
It drove his sisters crazy.
"The children's bedrooms were close together, and he would play the same note over and over and over for hours," his father says. "I'd try to figure out when he was going to get tired and quit playing, but he kept playing that same note. It sounded fine to me, but I guess he wanted it to be perfect."
When Riverside Baptist lost its drummer, Robert, barely a teenager, offered to step in — though he'd never had a drum lesson in his life.
"He was so good, I never asked him where he had picked it up," Pastor Tatum says. "But the whole congregation could hear he was something special."
His talents did not extend to academics, however. His parents repeatedly lectured him on the importance of good grades, especially in high school, once even taking away his clarinet in an effort to get him to study. He simply borrowed another one.
And because he didn't get a scholarship to FAMU, he had to work his way through school, alternating semesters of study with time off to earn tuition.
That's why, at 26, though he was finally a FAMU drum major, he was still only a junior.
'Looking at myself'
There's a theory that each of us is actually three people: There is the person we are to the public, the person we are with our closest friends and family, and the person we are alone in our thoughts — a person we may not acknowledge, even to ourselves.
Robert Champion always put on a happy face. He had a silly sense of humor, like his dad, often playing pranks on his little sister by stealing her things and hiding them. Handsome and likable, he made friends easily but was more likely to confide in an adult than a schoolmate.
At some point, perhaps early in college, Champion seemed to come to terms with what he had known at least since high school: that he was gay. At the family's last Christmas together, in 2010, he brought home a boyfriend for the first time. No one said a word about it. His parents just wanted him to be happy.
His band mates may not have been as accepting.
"Being gay wasn't a thing that people knew in high school," Walton says. "It wasn't out in the open."