The percussion subgroup, called The Z, has its own initiation ritual that takes place throughout the semester. It's called "Crossing Bus C." And it would cost Robert Champion his life.
After the game, later that night, the charter buses are escorted back to the hotel. Bus C parks in the back of the hotel, the engine running. About 30 FAMU band members are aboard the bus.
A number of students subject themselves to hazing. Some will walk from the front to the back of the bus while being attacked. Sometimes, the hazing victim sits in the "hot seat" at the back of the bus while being slapped and beaten.
Nobody knows why Robert Champion boarded Bus C. The bus he rode from Tallahassee to Orlando was Bus H. Some students speculate that, after years of resisting hazing and warning others not to participate, Champion decided to submit to earn the respect and loyalty of the band before he became head drum major the following year. The Classic would be his last chance at acceptance. Others suggest he might have been lured inside the bus and beaten as his punishment for his stance against hazing.
Tall, heavy-set, with a shaved head and a short-cropped beard and mustache, Robert Champion moves down the narrow aisle between the rows of seats through a gauntlet of fists.
He is struck in the stomach, arms, chest and back. One purplish-gray bruise extends from the top of his back almost to his waist. Beneath those bruises and abrasions, his body is bleeding.
Immediately after the beating, Champion complains of thirst and exhaustion. His vision blurs, he vomits and collapses inside the bus.
Holding Champion as he is dying, an unidentified person calls 911 at 9:46 p.m.
"He is in my hands, ma'am. He's cold. He's in my hands," the male voice says. "His eyes are open, but he's not responding."
About an hour later, Robert Champion dies in Dr. P. Phillips Hospital. Early the next day, Julian White identifies the body.
The cause of death is listed as hemorrhagic shock caused by blunt-force trauma: killed by hazing.
Here is what else died that day: the shiny-brass reputation of a precision college marching band.
The famous FAMU band is suffering from a self-inflicted wound by a cadre of band members who believed they were untouchable, beyond reproach and superior in their conceit that nothing bad would happen.
Until it did.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5392. email@example.com or 407-420-5470. Staff writer Matthew K. Richardson contributed to this report.
Since Robert Champion's death
Four FAMU students, Hakeem Birch, Denise Bailey, Anthony Mingo and Brandon Benson, have been charged with a misdemeanor for the hazing of the five clarinet Clone pledges. Three other students, James Harris, Aaron Golson and Sean Hobson, have been arrested on charges of hazing Bria Hunter. Golson and Hobson were also charged with felony battery.
Champion's death remains under investigation.
On Jan. 11, a yearlong, campuswide trespass warning was issued by FAMU campus police against a band student accused of harassing another student to join the Thunder subgroup.
Two months after the death of Robert Champion, the hazing continues.