Fellow drum majors called him "The Example."
Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, hazed to death on a parked charter bus in Orlando last fall, was the first to arrive for practice, the last to leave. He cared deeply about the world-famous band's sound, its look, its image.
"Rob was constantly asking for more help to improve our craft and art. He was always asking, 'Hey, can we do this? What do you think I can do better to improve myself?' He was always thirsty for more knowledge," said Rikki Wills, 24, who was Champion's roommate and one of 11 band members charged in his death.
Champion also hated hazing, said Wills, himself a drum major.
During an interview this week with the Orlando Sentinel, Wills, the only hazing defendant to speak publicly in any depth about the case, revealed some new details about Champion's death. He also offered his view on why hazing thrived inside FAMU's celebrated band despite an administration and a band director who said they fought it.
In the company of his attorney, Bill Sharpe, a former assistant public defender in Orange County, Wills professed his innocence. He said he tried to shield Champion from the onslaught of fists, kicks and drumsticks that caused his friend to die from shock brought on by deep-tissue bleeding.
He said he took blows meant for Champion as they made their way through the gauntlet on Bus C that night in November after the Florida Classic football game at the Florida Citrus Bowl.
Wills, who did not talk with detectives during their investigation, said he was bashed and his arms were bruised.
"I know that I fractured my right-hand ring finger and my middle finger because I was getting hit with percussion mallets trying to take somebody's hand off of Robert's leg because they were holding it," he said.
Wills said he was told that Champion and another drum major, Keon Hollis, were planning to "do the bus" as he was walking toward the Rosen Plaza hotel where the band was staying.
Wills said Champion was conflicted about participating in the ritual because it violated his personal stand against a "bad tradition" deeply embedded in the band culture. But he thought he needed to earn the respect of the Marching 100's rowdy percussion section, the band members who rode Bus C, if he ever hoped to rise to be head drum major and lead an ensemble that performed at presidential inaugurations, the Grammy Awards and Super Bowls, Wills said.
"When Robert became drum major -- much like every other first-year drum major -- [he discovered] it is extremely hard to gain the respect from your peers, and especially difficult [to gain the respect of] the percussion section," Wills said. "If you don't control the percussion section, you essentially don't control the band."
He said he understood Champion's misgivings.
"I never agreed with [hazing] myself, but I understood that it was just the way that things worked," said Wills, who submitted to hazing on Bus C in 2008. "If you went against the grain, you were alienated, you were isolated." He said a drum major could earn acceptance from the percussion section by enduring the pounding of fists and drumsticks on Bus C.
"The drum majors never get on that bus, and the only time we do, you know, is to help one of our fellow brothers get through that process to get the respect they deserve," Wills said. "It's sad, but it's the only way to get it."
He said he helped Hollis cross first.
Then, when he looked up from the back of the bus, Wills saw Champion, shirtless, at the front. Champion, he said, stood with his arms stretched out, preparing to run down the center aisle.
"It was extremely hot. It was extremely dark. You couldn't see anybody," Wills said. He said he scrambled from the back over the top of the seats to reach Champion.
Wills did not identify any of the hazers. He said he kept his head down, helping Champion along toward the back of the bus where the "crossing" would end.
"We didn't want to look up," he said. "That's how you get your face hit."
Wills said he approached the bus crossing in 2008 differently than Champion did.
"When I went through the bus, I was very aggressive. I kind of muscled my way through," he said. "I was like, 'Look, these people are trying to hurt me, trying to hit me. ... Rob, he didn't want to hurt nobody. He was very passive in his nature. He didn't want to push too hard."
When it was over, Wills said, he saw Champion gasping for breath and heard him calling for Jesus. Wills said he yelled for someone to call 911.
Wills and the Marching 100's other four drum majors wore their band uniforms and served as an honor guard at Champion's funeral in suburban Atlanta. He said he did not want to attend, but a counselor suggested he would regret staying home.
"It was rough," he said. "It was the first time I'd seen Rob since the incident, and he was in a casket. I was looking at him and ... was kind of still in denial. I was like, 'Yo. It's Rob. He's going to come back any second now, you know. He's not gone.' "
Wills, who was three classes shy of earning his degree in criminal justice when he was expelled from FAMU, has pleaded not guilty, like the 10 other defendants, to felony hazing of Champion. Each could get five years in prison if convicted of the third-degree felony. Lawyers for the others declined interview requests or did not return calls.
Since Champion's death, the band has been suspended for the 2012-13 school year; longtime band director Dr. Julian White retired unexpectedly in May after months of fighting for his job; and FAMU President Dr. James Ammons resigned last week.
Wills said he thinks FAMU leaders and the band's staff could have stopped hazing.
"The band staff didn't encourage hazing, but I will say that it's my personal opinion that a lot of times they turned the other cheek or [looked] away," he said. "It was more along the lines of just pretending like [they] didn't notice it."
Although he said he respected White, he blamed the former band director for failing to mete out harsher penalties for hazing incidents.
"Well, honestly, I mean, we went to Dr. White [about hazing] and told Dr. White things before. ... It was always just a slap on the wrist or, 'OK, I'll take care of it,' and it basically just turned into a speech -- one of those speeches they give the band [about hazing] that nobody pays attention to," Wills said.
Brooke Hobbs, a spokeswoman for White, said Wills' comments appear "to be no more than a self-serving attempt to avoid jail time."
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