ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — 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 with its familiar booms, drum rattles and other tones for the school's season-opener.
It was the band's first game appearance since a season-long suspension. The scrutiny following 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. Alumni said they celebrated the reappearance of a school symbol whose absence caused a core of its fan base to stay away on game days.
"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.
"It's almost not football season without the band — especially at FAMU," he said.
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. The band's return began with the pre-game national anthem and continued with a halftime show that brought two packed decks of FAMU fans to their feet.
"It's a new day," FAMU band announcer Joe Bullard said as the performance began. "Size does not matter. The sound is clear."
But 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 student is being considered at all," Champion's mother, Pam Champion told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Decatur, Ga. "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 following 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, who was named the band's new director.
Robinson said a moment of silence before the game in honor of all hazing victims was sincere.
Euphonium player Ronald Gray said he's been anticipating the return.
"It was exciting," said Gray, who's a junior. "It was two years since we touched this exact same field. Just being on the sideline and hearing crowd actually chanting, and not being able to hear the whistle because of the volume of the crowd...I lost sleep last night thinking about it actually."
At Sunday's game, 1995 FAMU band alumnus Edwin Rock said the band had to pay the price, but that the time was right for a return.
"We pay homage to Robert Champion and him dying, but the other students — the music majors — it's time for them to be on the field and participate," Rock said.
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.
"It takes a tragic situation to bring people together," Martin said later in an interview. "It's just a bond that we kind of share. They went through tragic incident, and we went through something tragic."
As the band returned, cases surrounding the hazing incident continue. Fifteen former band members were charged with manslaughter and felony hazing in Champion's death. 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.
Pam Champion said she hopes sentences for the remaining defendants will send a message to stop future incidents.
"What I would say is what I've said all along. There is an opportunity to send a strong message, and it's the only thing that will be a deterrent," she said. "So far that message has not been sent to eradicate hazing all together."
The Champions also have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against FAMU and the company that owns the bus in which the hazing took place.
But on Sunday, the future — not FAMU's recent past — was the focus for fans.
"We're Rattlers. We come back strong. We come back striking," said Shakera Akins, a 2011 FAMU graduate. "We're already a close-knit family, so it just brings us closer together. We heal quickly. We strike from the top."
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower.