The hard news about Ezra Castro had just started spreading Tuesday morning when Brandon Beane’s phone began to buzz in Orchard Park. He glanced at the number and understood immediately what the call would mean.
It was Veronica Borjon, Mr. Castro’s longtime partner. She was calling the Bills general manager to tell him about the death of Mr. Castro, 39, who with his luchador mask and sombrero doubled as Pancho Billa, the Texas-raised Bills fan who emerged in recent years as the euphoric heart and soul of the nationwide #BillsMafia.
The fact that Borjon had Beane's direct line says a lot about the unusual nature of this connection. Beane consoled Borjon – both as a friend and on behalf of the organization – then reached out to head coach Sean McDermott once the call was over.
Mr. Castro, a Texas native whose lifetime passion for the Buffalo Bills led him to create a costumed superfan persona he called "Pancho Billa" and whose health battles in the past few months had team officials and fellow fans showering him with well-wishes, died Tuesday in the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas after a long battle with cancer. He was 39.
His death was announced by his family on Twitter Tuesday morning.
"We have lost our dear brother ezra 'Pancho Billa' this morning," the family wrote. "We are thankful and forever grateful for all the love and support during this journey. Ezra was surrounded by family and loved ones."
Mr. Castro, a Dallas resident who was born in El Paso, often told the story that when he was a little boy, his father told him he should choose a favorite football team. Proud of his Mexican American heritage, he looked for teams whose colors came closest to the red, white and green Mexican flag. The two choices were the Bills and the New England Patriots. Although his father and older brother, both named Jaime, are Dallas Cowboys fans, he picked the Bills.
He developed the character of Pancho Billa, a play on the name of Francisco "Pancho" Villa, a famous Mexican revolutionary general. His intricate costume eventually included a broad sombrero with leather luchador mask, a serape poncho, a bandolier and leather arm guards, all in red, white and blue and adorned with the Bills' buffalo and his catchphrase, "Viva Los Bills."
For years, he had traveled to several Bills games around the country, including the home opener in Buffalo.
Mr. Castro’s death, Beane said, “resonated through our building.” Co-owner Kim Pegula tweeted out a statement expressing the club's sorrow.
"Pancho was a pillar of positive strength and energy for me and all of #BillsMafia. He’s been a tremendous inspiration for our team. I was fortunate enough to spend time with him and get to know his story. My heart goes out to his children, friends and family. Viva Los Bills!"
Pancho was a pillar of positive strength and energy for me and all of #BillsMafia. He’s been a tremendous inspiration for our team. I was fortunate enough to spend time with him and get to know his story. My heart goes out to his children, friends and family. Viva Los Bills! pic.twitter.com/UFBVMjMWDd
— Kim Pegula (@KimPegula) May 14, 2019
Beane said Pegula's husband, Terry, had already been asking regularly about Mr. Castro’s well-being.
Beane and McDermott both spoke of their admiration for Mr. Castro, for “the way he fought it and stayed so positive for such a tough deal,” as Beane put it. Mr. Castro, a father with two young kids and a successful career as a mortician, “never made it about himself,” Beane said, beginning with the moment 18 months ago when Mr. Castro learned he had a massive tumor wrapped around his spine.
Throughout his treatment and even as he went into hospice care, Mr. Castro kept turning the focus to his family, to his fellow Bills fans and especially to the team itself. In 2018, the Bills surprised him during the NFL draft in Arlington by allowing him to announce that Harrison Phillips was their third round choice.
Andre Reed, the Bills Hall of Fame wide receiver, was on stage that night when he shared a moment that will be difficult for Bills fans to forget: "Pancho Billa, can you please join us on stage?" Mr. Castro appeared to be sobbing through his mask as he hugged Reed and announced the Phillips pick.
"The loss of this #BillsMafia member hurts, but we must keep his legacy alive," Reed said Tuesday on Twitter.
Phillips quickly became a friend who often corresponded with Pancho Billa by text. Last week, Mr. Castro received a visit at his Dallas hospital room from Ed Oliver, Buffalo’s first choice in last month’s draft, a choice he helped relay through the administrative chain by telephone from his hospital bed.
Oliver, moved, texted Beane to tell him of the meaning of stopping by the hospital. Beane said he shifted footage of Mr. Castro making the call onto his own computer drive, so he will have ready access to it, forever.
When Beane saw Oliver a few days ago, the first-round pick was still wearing a “#PanchoPower” bracelet.
A father of two who did not smoke or drink alcohol, Mr. Castro was also president of the Bills Backers groups in Dallas/Fort Worth, whose membership grew to about 700 under his watch. The team's supporters gather every week for the games either at the Hideaway Bar & Grill in Dallas or at Buffalo Bros in Fort Worth.
In early November 2017, while touring New York City on a trip planned around the Thursday night Bills game against the Jets, Mr. Castro noticed that his left arm had gone numb.
In Texas, he went to a doctor, expecting a diagnosis of a pinched nerve or something else minor. Instead, Mr. Castro heard what he called "the worst news of my life."
He had a cancerous tumor wrapped around his spine that had spread to his liver, lungs and lymph nodes.
The doctors wanted to operate quickly, but Mr. Castro put off the surgery until after Nov. 19 so he could take his 5-year-old son, Ginobili — named for Manu Ginobili, the longtime star of basketball's San Antonio Spurs — to the Bills-Chargers game in California.
Ginobili, called "Panchito" by his dad, wore a costume of his own with a mask and Batman-style ears.
He put off the surgery to enjoy the day with his son because, "I don't know if that's the last Bills game I will ever see or not," said Mr. Castro. After the game, which the Bills lost 54-24, his son said, "Dad, I loved every minute of that game."
On Dec. 13, Mr. Castro had the surgery, which left a lengthy scar from the back of his neck to between his shoulder blades. The doctors removed the mass and used cadaver bones to replace two weakened portions of his spine, he said.
In April 2018, the Bills told Mr. Castro that he would be leading the Bills’ delegation of 50 fans at the NFL draft in Dallas.
But they surprised Mr. Castro, who was then undergoing chemotherapy, by having Bills legends Andre Reed and Fred Jackson call him on stage to make the Bills' third-round pick of defensive tackle Harrison Phillips from Stanford. "Yeah, baby, Viva Los Bills!" Mr. Castro shouted in a husky voice.
Both Beane and McDermott grew to know Castro well, and they both have favorite memories. McDermott, who remembered how Castro always promised – with fervent loyalty – "to pass the torch on to his kids," said he will never forget the moment last year when Castro talked to the players at a New Jersey hotel, just before the Bills rolled over the New York Jets, 41-10.
From where he was standing, McDermott could see Castro entering the hotel and observe him approaching the room, and McDermott spoke of “the excitement I felt for him, being able to address the team.”
The head coach watched closely as Castro addressed the players, noticing how Castro's talk about gratitude – about the everyday trials faced in different ways, by everyone – subtly turned the tables, bringing the players in around him as he finished speaking.
This year, Mr. Castro was hospitalized at draft time. Beane called his hospital room so he could serve as a key conduit in the way the team announced its 2019 first round NFL draft pick.
On April 25, he entered hospice care. From the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, he said, "I just want the Bills Mafia to keep praying and to know how thankful I am and that I love them to death, and how honored I am to be an honorary Buffalonian, for life."
In the hospital, he rested under a Buffalo Bills blanket and a Bills flag hung from his IV pole.
On Dec. 11, 2017, Katherine O'Brien, a Western New York native, neuropsychologist and a cancer survivor who is president of the Bills Backers of Houston, set up a Go Fund Me page for Mr. Castro and his family. It surpassed its goal of $30,000 and was still climbing.
McDermott and Beane were still working through the loss Tuesday when they paused to speak of Castro. They said it was far too early to think of exactly how the team will honor Pancho Billa in a season that includes a Thanksgiving game against the Cowboys in Arlington, a game that Castro – who grew up surrounded by Cowboys fans – dreamed he would be able to attend.
Certainly, McDermott said, the Bills will carry his memory into the season, and he said he was sure Castro, in some way, "will still be watching us very closely."
As for Beane, he met Castro for the first time last summer, on the sidelines during training camp at St. John Fisher College. He said he reached out to shake hands and that Castro, in a typical moment of raw exuberance, grabbed Beane’s hand and pulled him in for a hug.
Mr. Castro is survived by his longtime partner, Veronica Borjon; their son, Ginobili; a daughter, Lourdes; his mother, Aurora Martinez; his father, Jaime Castro; and three brothers, Jaime, Zenoc and Eli.
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