The parking lot was filled, tents were set up, flags were flying and there were smells of fired-up grills. Footballs were thrown back and forth, music played and cars passing by honked horns to the chant-tune of "Let’s-Go-Buff-a-lo."
What felt like a typical pregame tailgate was instead a gathering of fans to pay their respects to one of their own.
It was a wake disguised as a party – which is pretty much the way the late Pancho Billa wanted it.
Hundreds came to the Hammer Lot across Abbott Road from New Era Field to honor Ezra Castro, who through his alter ego of Pancho Billa became known within the #BillsMafia – and the entire Bills fan base – for his unwavering enthusiasm and kindness in the name of his favorite football team.
Castro, who died in May after a lengthy battle with cancer, was a mortician who had a particular vision of how he wanted his farewell to Bills fans to go: He wanted a party.
Saturday was just that, "and more," said his longtime partner, Veronica Borjon. "Every time we came to Buffalo, we knew we were home. Even before his diagnosis, Ezra loves Buffalo, Ezra loves the fans, this was his home away from home. This is home to us.
"It’s beautiful. It's a big tailgate, and Ezra always says, go big or go home," she said. "This is more than enough. He is smiling, he is saying, 'Let’s party; let’s get this Buffalo Bills party started; Let’s Go Buffalo.' I can just hear him. ... And you heard Gino."
Gino is the 7-year-old son of Borjon and Castro, and the youngster rallied the crowd much like his father would have. A round of speeches delivered from the top of the van of famed tailgater and event co-organizer Ken "Pinto Ron" Johnson had just concluded when Gino grabbed the microphone.
"Let's Go Bills!" Gino yelled, with the hundreds of fans echoing the chant. He added one "Pancho Power!," then another, and finally an third impassioned "PANCHO POWER!" that got the crowd cheering as if it were game day.
— Keith McShea (@ByKeithMcShea) September 21, 2019
“He's like the soul of the #BillsMafia," Karen Mosz said of Pancho Billa.
Mosz, along with her husband, Mike, are South Buffalo natives in town from Chester, Va., for the home opener.
"I keep reading about him," Mike Mosz said, "and I wanted to pay my respects. This is a wonderful event. He symbolized the Buffalo Bills for so many years."
The couple was in a long line that led to a white tent where fans saw Pancho Billa's costume on display, watched a slide show video and hundreds of pictures, and exchanged hugs with family members, including Castro's brother, Jaime Castro, and his mother, Aurora Martinez.
"It’s a mix of emotions," Martinez said, wiping tears away with a tissue. "I’m proud of him. He has left such a legacy of love, and unity among all of the people who are here. I had no idea that Ezra had made such an impression and had given so much of himself to this community."
"I’m happy that he did, that he did not come here just to enjoy the game. This is the thing that he wanted, he always wanted people to be happy," she said.
Brother Jaime Castro, in his speech to the crowd, thanked Bills fans in Western New York and beyond.
"We thank you, we love you very, very much, we continue to pray for you, and we’re very very blessed to have all of you in our lives and call you our 'familia,' because that’s what you are," he said, before concluding with a Pancho Billa tagline: "Viva Los Bills!"
Saturday's event came together with the help of two #BillsMafia stalwarts who were close with Castro: Johnson, of Rochester, and Kristin Ruesch, originally from Angola, who works in marketing in New York.
Ruesch said that current Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and former wide receiver Stevie Johnson attended the event, which raised "several thousand dollars" that will go to Castro's family.
"This is exactly what he wanted," said Ruesch, "for everyone to be happy, and for his family to be here. We wanted them to come and feel the love. ... We wanted to keep it as authentic as it was out in the lot, so that people could have fun, tell stories, almost exactly like a tailgate like when he was here, and when he was popping around talking to everybody."
“What we’re doing here is the spirit of what Ezra wanted to do,” said Johnson. “The only difference between what we’re doing here and what Ezra wanted, was Ezra would have wanted his casket just sitting there, with a sea of tailgating around him.”
The family of Pancho Billa will be on the field Sunday afternoon when his memory is honored in a ceremony before the Bills' home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, when the team will kick off in front of its fans with a 2-0 record on another summery sunny day – the forecast calls for 82 degrees at the 1 p.m. kickoff.
“It’s going to be quite the emotional weekend,” said Bills fan Jake Gauda, of North Tonawanda, who welcomed tailgaters to the lot with a homemade sign. “There are going to be tears, smiles, laughter – a bunch of good emotions.”