Some of you might be familiar with Pancho Billa, aka Ezra Castro, Buffalo Bills superfan. You might recognize him as the guy in the Bills getup who read off the Bills draft pick from the hospital this past month during the first round. He passed away this week from cancer, and it actually hit me a little harder than I expected. I knew he was sick, and I knew things looked pretty bleak, but it was still pretty sad to get the news.

I actually have a small personal history with Ezra. Several years ago, back in 2014-2015ish, someone in the Bills fandom found out about me and asked for a caricature (back when I was freelance and actually had the time to do that sorta thing). At some point, after doing a caricature for another caricature artist who happens to be a bills fan (Flicktures, who surprisingly is still using my version of him as his twitter av), I found an email in my inbox from a guy named Ezra Castro. It was very informal, vaguely asking for a picture without much description, and I actually ignored it until he sent a follow up a week later. I was pretty busy at the time and wasn’t immediately looking to draw some other fan. I rarely get follow ups if I ignore the first email, so when he followed up I decided to respond. It wasn’t a hard request, just a cartoon version of him in his costume.

I had no idea who he was. I had no idea he had a following or even what the Bills mafia was. I had no idea he pretty much was the de facto leader of a group of crazy super fans who dressed in absurd costumes as characters. He just looked like the Bills version of someone in the Raiders Black Hole. I completed his original request (seen below), and to this day I’m not sure I’ve had someone so enthusiastically praise my work. I don’t even remember doing the art, I just remember how relentlessly positive and nice the guy was in his correspondence. He also seemed super into his whole persona in a way that became endearing very quickly.

I ended up doing like 4 or 5 projects for him that year. I did a logo, a caricature, and then he started asking for versions of his fellow super fans. I did a version of 5 super fans playing poker in the style of that “dogs play poker” painting. All of a sudden I was being bombarded by superfans and Bills Mafia members asking for caricatures, all because of his referrals. It was probably the most lucrative period I’ve ever had as a freelance artist. His referrals and subsequent referrals paid my rent for several months. During that time we emailed back and forth some more and I learned more about him and his cause.

He was just a massive Bills fan from Texas who was probably a better human than I’ll ever be. He raised money for charity, he organized a legitimate group of super fans called Pro Football’s Ultimate Fan Association. A lot of those crazy dressed up weirdos you see during games and at events? Chances are they were part of this crew. The dude was essentially the very best type of fan: an extremely dedicated yet positive person who just straight up loved his team. He wasn’t an asshole. He didn’t put anyone down. He just loved the Bills.

Pancho became my most consistent costumer over the years. At least once a year he’d return and ask for more doodles of superfans. It would actually amaze me when I would draw a superfan, and then on NFL footage B-roll for the Hall of Fame Game or something I’d actually see the very person I just drew. Drawing these people could actually be a huge pain, because they would pack so much little detail into their costumes that I would inevitably miss something or get something wrong. Lots of customers get annoyed with my first versions of cartoons and demand I fix things, but even when he wanted something changed Pancho was incredibly polite and positive about it and send me better reference photos. He always threw in a compliment about my work. With his connections, he had to know more artists and I can’t have been that impressive, but he’d still praise me. I loved getting his requests. He was genuinely the nicest guy I’ve ever emailed. His emails read exactly the same way he’d talk on camera in his persona. Lots of capital letters, Viva Los Bills, and exclamation points.

I heard about his cancer before he contacted me this year in early Feb, right after the Super Bowl. It was just a simple request for another super fan doodle. It was kind of depressing because I kinda knew it was going to be my last correspondence with him. A couple months later I saw him in the hospital bed at the draft and I knew for sure I would never see his email avatar pop up in my inbox anymore.

My experience with him was small and simple and he still made an impression on me. I can’t imagine how much he meant to those who knew him better. Rest in peace to the nicest guy I never met. We need more fans like you.

If you did know him and also want to honor him in some way, the Bills folks who knew him best set up a donation in his honor to give school supplies to under-served teachers and students.

#Panchopower #Vivalosbills