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COMMENTARY

'We can make it happen': A final and fitting farewell for Pancho Billa

Sean Kirst

The planning happened in a fitting way. Ken Johnson traveled to Dallas in May for the funeral of his longtime friend, Ezra Castro. Afterward, Johnson stopped at a hotel bar for a few beers with fellow members of the #BillsMafia, and Castro’s brother Jaime came over to say thanks and to offer a request.

This was not the kind of thing you plan by PowerPoint. Jaime explained what his brother told him before his death, how Castro – as a mortician – liked putting together calling hours with such flair they almost felt like a party, which is how Castro envisioned his own farewell in his adopted city.

As Pancho Billa, he wanted to be laid out in full luchador costume in a lot near New Era Field, where everyday members of the #BillsMafia – the international tribe of Bills fans for whom Castro was a kind of honorary chairman – could tailgate or stand in line to pay respects.

To the wrong person, the idea might sound like some unthinkable zubaz fantasy. But Johnson, a Rochester software engineer, transforms on autumn Sundays into Pinto Ron, a legend who shows up for Bills "pre-games" with a battered red Ford Pinto and allows his roaring followers to stand atop a van in the raucous Hammer Lot and shower him with ketchup and mustard.

He was also close to Castro, who routinely texted Johnson about schedules or draft picks from a hospital bed, and Johnson heard his friend express the same goodbye wish. With different fans or a different city, it might have been a quick "this-is-impossible" response.

Johnson said to Jaime: We can make it happen.

So it will, with everything the same except that a mannequin will serve in place of Castro himself. The memorial is Saturday, on the eve of the Bills home opener against Cincinnati, and you are most enthusiastically invited. From 2 to 6 p.m., in the Abbott Road off-stadium sanctum of the Hammer Lot – the 62-year-old roofer who runs the place, Eric Matwijow, says the name reflects how it feels to crush a volleyball – there will be calling hours to honor Pancho Billa.

Parking is free if you want to stand in line, $20 if you tailgate, with proceeds going to Castro's family. Get there at 1 p.m. and you can buy a copy of “Pancho Power,” the children’s book written by Roselyn Kasmire of which Castro was so proud, the one intended to inspire children who feel alone.

Wait in line, and you will meet Castro's longtime partner, Veronica Borjon – who is bringing her young children, Gino and Loulu, in faith they will always remember this tribute to their dad – as well as Jaime and Aurora, Castro's mother.

She is traveling to Buffalo for the first time from El Paso, hometown of Pancho Billa, a city aching with grief after a murderous gunman walked into a Walmart last month, a place where Aurora and many relatives routinely shop. The killer murdered 22 people, apparently targeting men, women and children of Mexican descent.

Bruce Turkiewicz, a Buffalo native and a member of the El Paso Bills Backers, said his group had planned, before the attack, to join with the Ysleta school district and Castro's family for a giveaway at an education rally in a lot near that Walmart. They intended to hand out “Pancho’s Packs,” part of an effort initiated by Dallas sportscaster Jonah Javad – formerly of WGRZ – with 26 Shirts and the Teacher's Desk of Buffalo to provide school supplies for children in need, in Castro's honor.

The killings changed everything. The district decided to take the backpacks directly to the same El Paso schools Castro attended as a child. Chris Lechuga, a district spokesman, said it was important due to economic need and because many families, traumatized by the attack, were afraid to go to the store.

Turkiewicz joined Castro's parents, other relatives, district staff and volunteers in handing them out. Little kids raised in hard situations – tiny children still trying to get their arms around why something unspeakable happened in their city – lined up for backpacks stuffed with supplies.

The family of Ezra "Pancho Billa" Castro took part in a pregame ceremony Sunday with Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

"Those kids were so happy, and there were an awful lot of hugs," said Castro's mother, Aurora, describing how boys and girls were lifted at that hard moment by "Pancho Power."

She remembered a visit with her son not long before he died, how he was putting together packages for a Mexican youth football team he helped support. She asked if maybe he should give himself a break, and he essentially said he did not have the time.

"I want them to be passionate like I am," he replied. "I want them to have a goal in life."

Aurora, Jaime and Borjon all said they will bring their gratitude toward Buffalo to the Hammer lot, beneath a tent holding a mannequin in Pancho Billa's regalia. Borjon said the team offered to fly Castro's casket to Buffalo in May for an actual wake at the stadium, but it seemed too overwhelming amid services in both Dallas and El Paso.

With appreciation, she told the Bills that doing it this way – timing everything to mesh with the opener, where the family will be formally honored before kickoff – will allow far more people to actually take part.

One more thing involving fans throughout the region, by the way: Castro was always willing to pose for photos with Bills faithful, often complete strangers. Kristin Ruesch, a #BillsMafia stalwart who works in marketing in New York, traveled to Texas to visit him during his illness and said he loved looking at every photo and letter he received.

She is helping coordinate the Hammer lot events. On behalf of the #BillsMafia, she asks – if you have an image of yourself with Pancho Billa – that you bring a copy to hang on a board, images that will eventually go into a giant scrapbook for Borjon and the kids.

Pancho Billa, in his prime. (James P. McCoy/The Buffalo News)

Familiar stadium mainstays will be helping Pinto Ron, such as retired Syracuse pharmacist Joanie "Mama J" DeKoker and Captain Buffalo, who wears bison horns but does not reveal his true identity. Joining them will be Katie O’Brien, a Buffalo-raised neuropsychologist who - as president of the Bills Backers of Houston - survived her own struggle with cancer and is now a trusted confidant to Borjon and the children.

They are thrilled because the Bills are 2-0, a fast start they wish Castro could have seen. Still, the power of all of this involves far more than football. Castro made a one-of-a-kind connection with countless stranger, Borjon said, “because of his decency, his kindness, his sincerity, the way he treated other people.”

 

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

He did not smoke or drink, which magnified the shock at a savage cancer that went from discovery to death in 19 months. This summer, Borjon and a friend took the kids on a getaway to the mountains of Colorado, where Gino and Loulu put on Pancho Billa shirts, climbed a boulder toward the sky and reached out to their father.

The other day, 7-year-old Gino told Borjon that September always makes him think of Halloween and Christmas, his favorite holiday. Borjon casually asked if he knows what he wants for a big gift.

“I want my dad back,” he said, and they wept as they embraced.

The child, on as deep a level as anyone, understands the fundamental truth about his father. "There was no gimmick," Ruesch said of Castro. "It was his sincerity.”

Veronia Borjon with 7-year-old Gino and 4-year-old Lourdes, or Loulu: Remembering their dad. (Family photo)

In other words, the costume was not the reason people loved him. As his brother Jaime put it, “Everything he did was about unifying,” whether it involved Castro's own family or the national army of Buffalo loyalists that fiercely misses fish fries, sponge candy – and the Bills.

Contemplate then, in a sentence as long as the drive to Rochester, the result of the phenomenon of Pancho Billa – how a Texan who picked the Bills as a little kid because their colors kind of, sort of, resembled the Mexican flag became so devoted he traveled to many games and kept a huge aluminum bison in his yard, how he somehow breathed in the beautiful, upside-down madness of loving this team until he found himself one day exchanging texts with Harrison Phillips, the defensive lineman who wants Castro's kids to call him “Uncle Harry,” the guy whose name Pancho Billa shouted to the world when he called it out in the NFL draft.

Now, join it all together with love, grace and maniacally devoted friends who absolutely want to grant Ezra Castro his last wish.

It gives you Buffalo, with tears and hope, lined up in the Hammer Lot.

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

Heart of the Mafia: Pinto Ron and Pancho Billa - or Ken Johnson and Ezra Castro. (Ken Johnson photo)

 

 

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