Nearly two years after a drum major’s hazing death silenced the music at Florida A&M football games, the famed Marching 100 band returned to the field Sunday for the school’s season-opener.
It was the band’s first game appearance since a season-long suspension. The scrutiny after Robert Champion’s 2011 death thrust the school into the national spotlight and led to more than a dozen arrests and the resignation of top officials.
As the band marched into the Florida Citrus Bowl, fans stood and cheered, and some had tears in their eyes.
“They did have to be punished — if you want to say that,” 1985 FAMU graduate Cedric Crawford said. “But it’s great to have them back.”
Champion died in Orlando in November 2011 after he collapsed from what prosecutors call a savage beating during a hazing ritual. It happened on a bus parked in a hotel parking lot after FAMU’s final football game that season.
At 126 members, the band that returned Sunday was much smaller — there were more than 400 at the time of the suspension.
“It’s a new day,” FAMU band announcer Joe Bullard said as the performance began. “Size does not matter. The sound is clear.”
From afar, Champion’s family viewed the performance as a rushed return for a band they say has yet to transition away from a longstanding hazing culture.
“It’s too soon for the band to be back on the field, simply because there is nothing to indicate the safety of students is being considered at all,” Champion’s mother, Pam Champion, told The Associated Press. “I still feel there has been a rush to put the band on the field, and that rush ... has to do with finance. They are putting profit before safety.”
In addition to the suspension, Champion’s death led to the departure of the band’s longtime director; the abrupt resignation of the university’s president, James Ammons.
School officials lifted the suspension in June as the latest in several changes FAMU adopted in an effort to end a culture of hazing.
At a news conference after the game, FAMU’s interim President Larry Robinson reiterated the school’s hazing- prevention measures, including a new student code of conduct, new procedures to report and investigate hazing and an anti-hazing website. By his side was Sylvester Young, a 1969 FAMU graduate and the band’s new director.
Also in attendance Sunday was Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin. The 17-year-old was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., by former neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in a polarizing and highly publicized trial in July.
Tracy Martin was an honorary captain for Sunday’s game and led FAMU’s football team onto the field.
As the band returned, cases surrounding the hazing incident continue. Fifteen ex-band members were charged with manslaughter and felony hazing. Seven have accepted pleas that included probation and community service-related sentences. Another has pleaded but hasn’t been sentenced, and the rest await trial.