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'He's smiling so big': Bills plan ceremony for Pancho Billa at home opener

Veronica Borjon and Buffalo Bills administrators talked about the possibilities for a long time.

There were a few options on the table for honoring Ezra Castro, the exuberant mask-wearing Bills fan often known as Pancho Billa, who died of cancer Tuesday at a Dallas hospital.

After giving it a lot of thought over the last two days, Borjon and the Bills settled on an answer they agreed Castro, Borjon's longtime partner, would love:

They will hold a celebration of life in his memory on Sept. 22 at New Era Field – as part of the team's home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

For years, Castro, 39, did his best to make it to Orchard Park for the first home game of the season.

"It was his baby, his getaway, his time and he knew it," Borjon said. She and their two children, Gino – whose 7th birthday was this month – and Lourdes, 3, will be there in September to see tribute paid to such intense loyalty in front of a big and passionate crowd.

The family will hold services Saturday for Castro in Irving, near Dallas, and then on Tuesday, May 21, in his hometown of El Paso. Before his death, Castro – a mortician – daydreamed about the idea of having another viewing this month at New Era Field.

If Borjon had decided on such an event, she believes the Bills would have done their best to make it happen. But the sequence of memorials in Texas will be tiring for the entire family, and their son, Gino, is still not done with the school year.

Borjon chose the opener because it makes sense, and will give those involved a chance to catch their breath and plan it well.

Shaena Kershner, director of marketing for the Bills, said opening day at New Era Field will also make it easier for a much larger number of Bills fans to take part, including those who need to travel to Buffalo from throughout the country.

"They've all been amazing," Borjon said, speaking both of the Bills organization and the #BillsMafia, a nationwide collective of loyalists rallying to embrace a #PanchosPack backpack campaign. That effort was touched off by a thought Castro shared before his death with Jonah Javad, a former Buffalo television reporter who now works in Dallas.

Rather than flowers, Castro hoped Bills supporters would honor his memory by helping to provide scholastic backpacks – packed with school supplies – for children growing up in difficult circumstances.

Bills fans rally behind Pancho Billa's wish, flood Teacher's Desk with support

As for the Bills, chief administrative officer David Wheat said focusing on the home opener gives the team several months to work out the most moving and appropriate means of remembrance. "It was clearly the best opportunity to celebrate him," Wheat said.

The outpouring over Castro's death captured national attention. Wheat said he cannot remember anything quite like it involving a single fan and the Bills organization, and he believes a major part of that accelerating response is intertwined with social media and its 21st century communal power.

Above all else, Wheat said, the flood of reverence and love has everything to do with the sincere and selfless nature of Castro himself, and the way a guy from Texas connected with such intensity to a faraway Western New York city.

"He figured it out. He got it," said Wheat, who spoke of how Castro "found such strength in the fan base and what Buffalo has faced."

In some deep and empathetic fashion, Wheat said, Castro's death "resonated so much with people because they felt in many ways he was living their story."

Borjon grew emotional while speaking of how so many people are grieving for Castro and showing concern about their family.

She believes he is still aware of what is happening, and he is thrilled at the idea of being a central part of the energy and ceremonies at New Era Field on opening day.

"Oh, he's smiling," Borjon said. "He's smiling so big."

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

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