Ezra Castro, who has established a national identity as the costumed Buffalo Bills fan who calls himself Pancho Billa, learned from doctors Thursday morning that he is entering hospice care for cancer that began with a mass around his spine and spread into other organs, including his liver and lungs.
Yet even at the most heartbreaking moments, Castro, like so many Bills fans, manages to find corollaries between his own life and pivotal moments for the team.
"We're still fighting," he said by telephone, "and I'm going for a Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Oilers kind of comeback."
Castro, 39, is hospitalized at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He was referring to what might be the most memorable victory in team history. In 1993, the Bills won their wild card playoff game, en route to a third straight Super Bowl, by defeating the Oilers in overtime, 41-38, after trailing 35-3 in the second half.
At the time, Castro was a 13-year-old from El Paso who already was the rare Texas-raised football disciple cheering for the Bills, a club based in a city far to the North. Years later, as a mortician in Dallas, that passion would bring him national celebrity. He donned a luchador mask and a sombrero, all in Bills colors, and began calling himself Pancho Billa. He maintained his faith in the team despite many setbacks over many seasons, often traveling to watch the Bills even in some of their most difficult years.
That allegiance made him one of the most familiar members of the #BillsMafia, the nationwide collective of Buffalo loyalists who have turned their deep and ample passion toward supporting Castro, throughout his illness.
It was a massive Twitter effort by the #BillsMafia that led the Bills and the National Football League to pull off an unforgettable moment at last year's NFL draft in Arlington, where Castro – in full regalia – was called to the stage by Andre Reed and Fred Jackson to announce that Harrison Phillips was the third round choice for the Bills.
Thursday, his thoughts went out to those friends, and their city.
"I just want the #BillsMafia to keep praying and to know how thankful I am and that I love them to death," Castro said, "and how honored I am to be an honorary Buffalonian, for life."
His voice broke, and he wept.
Veronica Borjon, Castro's longtime partner, said he will receive hospice care at the hospital, where he can visit freely with their children, Gino, 6, and Lourdes, 3. An experimental treatment – which was successful in rolling back the tumors in Castro's liver – has compromised his lungs, making it difficult to breathe without access to supplemental oxygen and requiring his continued hospitalization, Borjon said.
Castro and Borjon had hoped to attend this year's draft in Nashville, where former Bill Stevie Johnson offered to allow Castro to make a draft pick for the team in Johnson's place. Castro is now unable to travel, but he is hoping the #BillsMafia will get behind bringing his hash tag, @PanchoBilla1, to an effort called the #NFL100Contest on Twitter, in which two fans will be given NFL season tickets good for all games, generation to generation and including playoffs, for 100 years.
The formal cutoff for that contest was April 7. In a tweet, Borjon promised her children would use those tickets to support the Bills.
"They are the future and the legacy of their father," she wrote.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of his work in this archive. Friends wishing to send cards or notes can write to Castro and Borjon at 606 W. Airport Freeway, Irving, Tx. 75062