LITHONIA, Ga. — Robert Champion fell in love with music at about age 6 when he saw a marching band at a parade in downtown Atlanta. So mesmerized by the festivities, he came home, took out pots and pans and started banging away like a little drummer.
His passion led him to marching bands from middle school through college. He was a drum major for the famed Marching 100 band of Florida A&M University, a group that has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations. The prestige brought along a "culture of hazing" and a secret world that played a role in Champion's death, his family said Monday.
"It needs to stop. The whole purpose is to put this out there and let people know there has to be a change," Champion's mother, Pam, said at a news conference.
On Nov. 19, after the school's football team lost its annual game with rival Bethune-Cookman, Champion collapsed on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel. The 26-year-old junior had been vomiting and complained he couldn't breathe shortly before he became unconscious.
When authorities arrived about 9:45 p.m., Champion was unresponsive. He died at a nearby hospital.
Authorities have not released any more details, except to say hazing played a role. An attorney representing Champion's family also refused to talk specifics.
"We are confident from what we've learned that hazing was a part of his death. We've got to expose this culture and eradicate it," Christopher Chestnut said. "There's a pattern and practice of covering up this culture."
Since Champion's death, the school has shuttered the marching band and the rest of the music department's performances. The longtime band director, Julian White, was fired.
The college also announced an independent review led by a former state attorney general and an ex-local police chief in Tallahassee, where the historically black college is based.
White, who believes he was unfairly dismissed, said Monday he had suspended 26 band members for hazing two weeks before Champion died. He took heat for the decision, particularly from the parents of band members, and said the punishments were like suspending star football players.
"And so the band members were apprehensive. `Doc, you think we can go without 19 trombone players?'" White said at a Tallahassee news conference. "And other folks. `Doc, do you thing you can do it without them?' My comment was, it doesn't matter, I am not going to sacrifice the performance for the principle."
Hazing has a long history in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the band is coveted for its tradition and prominence. Band performances are sometimes revered as much as the school's sports teams.
FAMU has been at the center of some of the worst cases. In 2001, former FAMU band member Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player, said he was paddled around 300 times and had to go to the hospital.
Champion's parents said their son never spoke of hazing. Robert Champion Sr. said he talked to his son just a few days before his death and everything was fine.
"I wanted to believe stuff like that wouldn't happen," he said. "I would ask my son questions. `Is there anything you need to tell me? Let me know.' He told me, `Dad everything is going OK. I'm working, trying to go to school and practice.'"
As a child, Champion would use a broom handle to mimic a band director's baton. At one point, he designed his own drum major uniform, his mother said.
"You put him on a field in a performance and he would give you a show," she said.
His first instrument was the clarinet, which he learned to play in the fifth grade. A middle school teacher recognized his talent and he was tapped to lead the school's orchestra and perform with the Southwest DeKalb High School band as an eighth grader. He could also sing and play keyboards.
Chapel Hill Middle School band director Natalie Brown said she'll never forget his outgoing personality and phenomenal musicianship.
"He was always smiling. He never gave me a hard time," she said. "If class was about to start, he'd get everyone quiet and start the warm-up process. He had the drum major mentality way back then."
He was so enthusiastic about performing that his mother would call him "Mr. Band."
At times he struggled with his schoolwork and he didn't immediately go to Florida A&M after high school. But he eventually enrolled, balancing a job with school and his band commitments. In late 2010, he was named drum major.
"His experience in the band was, in his words, great. Robert was happy," his mother said. "He loved the band and everything that went with it. He loved performing. That was his life. You couldn't take him out of it."
The family's attorney said they hoped a lawsuit would lead to changes at the school and prod other hazing victims to come forward.
"We want to eradicate a culture of hazing so this doesn't happen again," said Chestnut. "Hazing is a culture of, `Don't ask, don't tell.' The family's message today is: `Please tell.'"
Armario reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee contributed to this report.