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COMMENTARY

Pancho Billa, behind the mask: Pain, strength and unwavering passion

Bills fans everywhere have seen Pancho Billa, the character Ezra Castro plays in stadium parking lots. Few, though, have seen the Castro who is living with overwhelming pain as he goes through treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Sean Kirst

HOUSTON – The tweet came within minutes Wednesday of the release of the 2019 National Football League schedule for the Buffalo Bills, which left Pancho Billa in a celebratory mood.

In a showcase game, the Bills travel on Thanksgiving Day to play the Dallas Cowboys, a team beloved to Pancho's father and his oldest brother in Texas. A guy emblematic of Bills fans everywhere was having a lot of fun responding to this one.

It will be, he exulted, a "@PanchoBilla party." For almost 14,000 Twitter followers, it seemed like more jubilant #PanchoPower bravado from the sombrero-wearing icon in a luchador mask whose face now adorns socks, flip-flops and shirts, a guy working on his own children's book.

Yet Pancho Billa is a character that Ezra Castro plays in stadium parking lots. Few see the Castro who woke up Tuesday to what he calls the “morning crud” at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he came out of sleep into overwhelming pain.

His longtime companion, Veronica Borjon, tried to shield him with her arms, the room half-shadowed in the morning light. Every night, before he sleeps, Castro curls into a shape meant to diminish the searing hurt. His body locks into that position, which only guarantees what he must face just after dawn.

Castro was wrapped in a Buffalo Bills blanket, a team banner on a wall. By day, he is a 39-year-old mortician from Dallas, a native of El Paso intensely proud of his Mexican-American heritage.

On autumn weekends, his identity merges with the Bills. He has a 400-pound aluminum bison in his backyard. Mexican “sugar skulls” decorated with Bills logos dominate his living room, not far from a gleaming oak casket, rescued from his workplace before it was thrown out, that he and Borjon turned into an entertainment center.

If that public image conjures up a sense of game day mania, those who love Castro quickly note he does not drink or smoke. Edward Huerta, a close friend since kindergarten, said the Pancho Billa furor is good for a smile, “but I always know who he is.”

Huerta joins Castro's mother, Aurora Martinez, in hoping people think about “the man behind the mask.”

Certainly, the family is proud of how Castro has become a symbol of the Bills Mafia, the never-give-up international coalition of Buffalo loyalists who vow allegiance to a team that has not won a playoff game in almost a quarter-century.

Castro always has his Pancho mask and Pancho power bracelet on with him during treatments. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Borjon, who first met Castro in high school, sees the larger statement in the courage he calls upon just to start each day.

“Give him half an hour,” she said Tuesday, familiar with his routine. A nurse handed Castro his medicine, and breaths that had seemed like singular gasps of pain gradually turned into something gentler, until Captain Buffalo felt the moment was right for a distraction.

The captain, who knows Castro from many Bills games, had flown to Texas for a visit from his downstate New York home. He wears a tall Flintstones-style buffalo hat and red, white and blue knee socks when he is in full character, his face lost beneath a patchwork of Bills colors, and he showed up at Castro’s room in that regalia.

He does not offer his true identity, even to journalists, saying only that he is a teacher whose bemused wife and children accept why he becomes Captain Buffalo for Bills games.

To appreciate the depth of the friendships within the Bills Mafia, consider this: Captain Buffalo’s father died last year. The first person he called as he left the hospital was Ezra Castro.

Captain Buffalo's plan this week had been to spend some time in Dallas with Castro and Borjon, who traveled to Houston to speak with doctors about some scan results. Castro remains in treatment for the cancer he learned of 18 months ago, when he felt a fierce pain in his arm that he thought was no big deal.

To his shock, he learned he had a mass around his spine. Tumors had already spread to his liver and his lungs. The doctors sent him to surgery, removing as much of the mass as they safely could.

A 10-inch scar remains on Castro's back from the operation that discovered his cancer two years ago. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Castro received chemotherapy, then shifted into experimental treatments in Houston, where the goal is driving back the disease.

The new drug seems to be working in his liver, the doctors said last week. But what they saw indicates that his lungs are inflamed, and specialists want him close by as they figure out why.

So Captain Buffalo spent several days doing whatever he could to help at the hospital. He covered for Borjon when she needed to check on the couple's two children, who are being cared for by her mother, Margarita Simental, and Castro's mother.

Amid all that, the captain had a plan to break through the morning crud.

Tongue firmly in cheek, he noted out loud that Castro, at that moment, seemed to have some spare time. Even amid the pain, his friend found a way to laugh when Captain Buffalo lifted a plastic bag and pulled out a Bills activity book to send home for Castro's 6-year-old son Gino, named in honor of San Antonio basketball legend Manu Ginobili. He also had a teddy bear and pink girls cowboy boots for 3-year-old Lourdes, an intense little girl with enormous eyes.

“Dude,” Castro said, pushing himself onto one elbow, offering the word with such emotion that it provided a book's worth of gratitude.

Just like that, Castro was himself again.

Captain Buffalo traveled 18 hours by plane and car from his home outside New York City to visit Castro at MD Anderson Cancer Center. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

During the day-by-day wait, there were dozens of texts and Twitter messages of support from the Bills Mafia, as well as a visit from Austin Harvey and Cameron Schmidt, two brothers who moved to Houston from Dansville, in Livingston County.

"The Bills Mafia is a family," Harvey said, "and you’re supposed to comfort family in a time of need.”

Castro was told Thursday that a few members of the Texans would stop up to see him, and he also learned he might finally get out before day's end. He stayed busy fielding digital questions about former Bills wideout Stevie Johnson, chosen by the NFL to make a pick for the Bills at the collegiate draft in Nashville. Johnson tweeted over the weekend that he wanted to hand it off to Castro.

A year ago, in a moment of high emotion at the draft in Arlington, Castro was called to the stage to announce Harrison Phillips as the third pick. Phillips now stays in touch with the guy he knows as Pancho, but whether such a thing might happen again remains unclear.

Ezra Castro in full Pancho Billa regalia at the 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas. (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS file photo)

The announcement of the Thanksgiving game seemed fitting, because Castro and Borjon already were focused on that theme. They spoke with appreciation of Katie O’Brien and Stuart Renfro, close friends in Houston who spent many hours at the hospital. Borjon said Renfro routinely gives the couple a key to his apartment so they have a place to stay.

O’Brien, a Houston neuropsychologist from Kenmore, understands Castro’s perspective as keenly as anyone. Years ago, in high school, she needed surgery to remove a cyst from her brain, a procedure that inspired her choice of a career. Today, she is barely 15 months past a double mastectomy intended to do away with her breast cancer.

Despite those trials, their friendship has a happier foundation. O’Brien is president of the Bills Backers of Houston. Castro is president of a similar group in Dallas and Fort Worth. “They’ve been unbelievable, a giant blessing,” Borjon said of O’Brien and Renfro.

Castro not only agrees. He says the same about Borjon.

“This is why I love her so much,” he said. “She’s the one who sees me throwing up in the morning. She’s the one watching our kids when I’m at games. She’s the one who’s with me when the cameras go away."

“The focus is on me,” Castro said, “but it should be on her.”

Ezra Castro and Veronica Borjon go for a walk through the MD Anderson Cancer Center. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

His family says that philosophy begins with their mother, who raised four boys: Jaime, Zenoc, Ezra and Eli. Aurora always told them to “be there for each other, no matter what.”

Her sons listened. Jaime and Zenoc are Dallas police officers. Eli is a veterinarian. A few months ago, after Jaime endured a stroke, he looked up to see his three brothers looking down at him in his hospital room.

Their parents divorced years ago. Jaime is a Cowboys fan like their father, while Zenoc and Eli follow the Denver Broncos. They find it moving to witness the way their brother has become a well-loved figure in a snowy Northern city.

"It’s been amazing to watch," Jaime said, "but it’s from the way he’s lived and lives and will continue to live.”

Aurora routinely travels more than 600 miles to help care for Gino and Lourdes. She emphasizes that the guy she loves is Castro, not the character he plays. In the same way, Castro said his greatest Bills memories do not involve noisy moments when he was in the spotlight.

What he remembers, in a fashion Bills fans will understand, is the way great times can somehow transcend defeat.

There was a Monday night game in 2007, when Dallas rallied to beat the Bills, 25-24. Castro brought his father, also named Jaime, and the Cowboys – dominated by the Bills for much of the night – won it improbably, on a field goal at the end.

It was his father who had challenged the young Castro to pick an NFL team, decades ago. The little boy responded by choosing Buffalo, whose colors most closely matched the Mexican flag.

Years later, in the stands at the end of the Cowboys game, Castro turned to asked his dad what he thought.

“Son,” his father responded, utterly content, “I only enjoyed the last three seconds.”

Ezra Castro's love for the Bills started when he was a child. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

The second instance was in November 2017, not long after Castro learned about his cancer. He had planned to take his young son Gino to watch the Bills play the Chargers in California, the child's first glimpse of the Bills Mafia, and Castro feared his illness would put an end to it.

Instead, the doctors said it was still all right to go. The Bills lost by 30, but on that day, it did not matter. What the son carried home was an afternoon with his dad that Gino can hold onto forever, more important than draft picks or Twitter trends, underlining the truth of Pancho Billa.

The real legend, every morning, wakes up without a mask.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

Captain Buffalo walks the halls of MD Anderson Cancer Center with Ezra Castro. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

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