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Sean Kirst: Facing cancer, Pancho Billa is right medicine for Bills

Sean Kirst

Ezra Castro was on the phone Thursday with a co-worker in Dallas when a call came in from a number he did not recognize. Some instinct told him he had better take it, and he apologized to his friend and switched to the new call.

A man asked for Pancho Billa. He identified himself as Sean McDermott, head coach of the Buffalo Bills.

“I was like, man, you sound like him, but are you sure?” said Castro, whose alter ego is Pancho, the greatest mask-wearing, fist-clenching costumed Bills loyalist ever born and raised in El Paso, Texas. A couple of remarks from McDermott reassured Castro that he wasn’t being tricked, and only intensified the karma that bonds Castro to his team.

Facing as hard a challenge as there is, Castro wills himself to see this pendulum: The week started with an escalation of some of the worst news of his life, but within four days he was speaking before the Bills themselves, a moment of unimaginable joy.

Sunday, he watched in MetLife Stadium as Buffalo overwhelmed the New York Jets, 41-10, and wideout Zay Jones tweeted afterward that he was so inspired by Castro’s talk that he wore a towel dedicated to Pancho, even as Jones scored one of the touchdowns.

All of it got rolling when McDermott came home from work a few days ago and his wife, Jamie, asked him if anyone had told him about the latest hardships faced by Pancho Billa. It was exactly a year ago Sunday that Castro, a seemingly healthy Dallas mortician, learned out of nowhere that he had a mass wrapped around his spine, spreading cancer to his liver, lungs and lymph nodes.

He had surgery last December, then spent much of the year going through chemotherapy. During that time, he was embraced by old friends within the coast-to-coast network of fans known as the Bills Mafia. Behind the efforts of Ken Johnson, the often-ketchup-coated-superfan known as Pinto Ron – trust me, a long story there – the Mafia waged a successful Twitter campaign to convince the Bills to allow Pancho Billa to call a pick at the National Football League draft in Arlington.

Sean Kirst: Pancho Billa's NFL Draft moment was one for Bills fans everywhere

All of a sudden, Ezra Castro, who had fallen in love with the Bills as a child because the team colors were a little like the Mexican flag, had a growing national profile. Yet all the love and reverence could not roll back the reality of his illness. His doctor told him last week that a scan showed his cancer had spread to his stomach and worsened in his lungs.

Castro, 39, the father of two young children, a guy who does not drink or smoke, found solace in his Bills community. He shared the news with his 10,400 Twitter followers, spoke with hope of a “plan C” for treatment, put his faith in God and called on his legion of friends to “hug your loved ones, amigos.”

He also figured, since his new chemotherapy will not start until Tuesday, that he had time to accept the much-appreciated gift of Joanie DeKoker, a retired Syracuse pharmacist and a Cheektowaga native who typically goes to games in a Bills sundress, a Bills hat covered with pins and is known as "Mama J" within the Mafia.

DeKoker, 61, describes Castro as one of the finest human beings she has ever met, as a son she never had. She offered to buy him a plane ticket to New Jersey for a chance to see the Bills-Jets game, mainly as a chance to surprise Pinto Ron as he celebrated his 400th consecutive rollout of the Red Pinto Tailgate, found in the dictionary under "utter madness."

Minutes after learning difficult news, Castro knew where he could find comfort.

“As soon as I left the doctor,” he said, “it was like: I guess I’m going to New Jersey.”

Castro explained that to McDermott when he received the surprise phone call from the coach, who offered his prayers and his thanks and told him to “stay strong.” McDermott got off the phone and thought it over. He said he wants his young players to understand “the unique fan base” in Buffalo, to try and connect their roles on the team to the intensity of the city's passion and traditions.

It is trickier to get across that sense of place in an era when most players do not stay in one city for all that many years. It occurred to McDermott: What better teacher than Pancho Billa?

Through team officials Derek Boyko and Shaena Kershner, McDermott invited Castro to speak to the team Saturday night, before the game. Castro showed up at a Jersey City team hotel in mask and sombrero and full regalia, and he walked to the front of a quiet room, filled with Bills players and coaches.

Castro told them how he wears his Bills mask during chemotherapy as he is “getting poison pushed through me.” He spoke of how his family shows up for his chemotherapy treatments out of love and faith, and he compared it to the reason Bills fans around the country show up at Bills games, no matter what, for some mystical fusion of team and city.

“That family, they love you guys,” said Castro, who pulled off his mask so everyone could see his face. McDermott asked the players to huddle around Castro, to count down from three and shout “Pancho Power!”

The next day, a Bills team that had struggled mightily dispatched the Jets by 31 points. Jones, who caught eight passes for 93 yards, tweeted afterward to Pancho:

“We love you. Stay strong. Keep fighting. Beat the odds.”

To McDermott, the point had been made. Castro, he said, “really personifies the toughness of Western New York and our fan base, and that’s the kind of team we’re trying to build.”

A team in Castro’s image? In a quiet way, this is what he models: After the game, Mama J planned to drive him to a cousin’s house so he could rest before he flew home, but her car battery went dead. It had been a long day and Castro has stage 4 cancer, and other people might have grown testy or frustrated.

Not Pancho Billa. For him, such a difficulty was not even a blip. He is a self-described “regular guy” who learned long ago that life is all about the way you confront everyday problems. Do it well, bring patience and a touch of grace, and that strength will be there when those problems are no longer small.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this forum.

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