Each year, for Bills fans everywhere, the team's home opener is one of the most anticipated games of the season and one that the faithful travel near and far to attend. Stopping at nothing to cheer on their beloved Bills at New Era Field, this unwavering commitment is precisely what separates Bills supporters from their NFL counterparts. This Sunday, when the Bills take their turf for the first time in the regular season, they'll celebrate Ezra "Pancho Billa" Castro – a man who not only showed the world what it means to be a Bills fan, but who reminded us all that we have the power to make a difference.
Even while enduring a battle with stage four cancer, Castro never faltered in his fandom or his desire to help others, sparking a rally cry in his honor called "Pancho Power." His impact was truly felt after he made a selfless wish, asking that instead of flowers being donated in his memory, that people instead give backpacks and school supplies for children.
It's safe to say that Castro got his wish and in doing so, has helped thousands of youth.
In what is sure to be an unforgettable pregame ceremony, the Bills will welcome Castro's mother Aurora, longtime girlfriend Veronica, his two children Gino and Lourdes, along with 100 children who received a backpack as part of his wish, to the field.
"I had no idea that one man's dream…just one man's little wish could make such a difference for so many children," said Executive Director of The Teacher's Desk, John Mika. "He didn't want flowers and I'm so grateful that he said he wanted school supplies for kids because it's really allowed us to pour in $1.3 million in school supplies into 10,000 children. To me, that's amazing."
After Castro lost his courageous fight on May 14, The Teacher's Desk, a local organization that provides a place where educators can "shop free for students in need," was flooded with donations in his honor for more than three weeks straight.
So much so explained Mika, that their website crashed.
"We got donations from Raiders fans, we got Seattle Seahawks [fans], I mean all over the country donations were coming in."
For Mika, who witnesses acts of kindness and generosity each day at The Teacher's Desk, this is another encouraging reminder of the good that is possible when people band together.
"[They're] incredibly passionate," he said about Bills fans. "…But for this Ezra, the outpouring, I had no idea. I thought we'd get, you know, maybe 100 backpacks, $1,000 – I thought that would be it. But to see the outpouring of caring, combining that with what he asked for – school supplies for kids – it just struck a chord with America…"
Bills players like Lorenzo Alexander, Micah Hyde, Jerry Hughes and Reid Ferguson were so moved by Castro that they donated to the cause. Harrison Phillips, Dion Dawkins, Stephen Hauschka and more also stepped up to offer their support when they joined over 250 volunteers, The Teacher's Desk and Bills staff to fill 5,000 "Pancho's Packs" during an event at New Era Field.
Of those filled, 3,000 were sent to Castro's home state of Texas – 1,500 of which went to Dallas and the rest of the allotment to his native El Paso. The remaining backpacks will be filled by the end of the month. Each comes complete with a tag that has a "Pancho Billa" animation on it, serving as a reminder of his bravery.
Forever grateful for Castro and the lessons that he continues to teach about perseverance and strength in times of adversity, the Bills will harness his fighting spirit as they take on the Bengals and look to advance to 3-0. As they do, each player will have the option to wear "Pancho Power" socks that were given to them by tackle Dion Dawkins.
"…It just feels good to play with that good energy around us and hopefully Pancho's playing with us every snap and every step."
To donate to The Teacher's Desk in memory of Castro, visit theteachersdesk.org/donate.