FOXBOROUGH — A long line of Patriots fan clutching Aaron Hernandez jerseys of all sizes and colors wrapped around Gillette Stadium early Saturday morning to say goodbye to their #81s.
The Patriots ProShop at the stadium in Foxborough is offering a free exchange this weekend of any #81 jersey purchased at the store or its online site for a new Patriots jersey of comparable value. The team announced the exchange June 28, two days after Hernandez was arrested and charged in the slaying of Odin Lloyd and dismissed from the Patriots roster.
The separation was a particularly forlorn one for a brother and sister close to the front of the line, each with a jersey in hand.
“I’m pretty upset because I finally got a jersey with my last name,” said Marta Hernandez, 33, of Peabody, who calls herself a “hardcore” Patriots fan. She had bought her $60 blue Hernandez jersey just last month in preparation for the upcoming season.
“Can you imagine walking into the stadium with this jersey on now?” she asked, holding up the shirt.
Her brother Luis, 30, a Somerville resident, said his own #81 jersey had cost close to $100.
“I’m going to get a jersey of someone who’s going to stick around,” Luis said. “But it’s a shame because I loved Hernandez’s playing. He had speed, power — the whole package.”
The line was so long Saturday that the ProShop opened at 9:30 a.m., a half hour early, to accommodate the demand and relieve waiting fans from the morning heat.
The offer is limited to this weekend: On Sunday jerseys can be exchanged from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Only officially licensed NFL Hernandez jerseys can be traded, and exchanges are limited to one per person.
“The origin of discussion for this exchange program was to provide customers of our Patriots ProShop, especially parents of some of our youngest fans, an opportunity to exchange their #81s,” said New England Patriots spokesman Stacey James on Saturday.
The team extended the offer to all customers with the Kraft family’s approval.
As of 5 p.m. Saturday, the Patriots ProShop had exchanged nearly 1,200 jerseys, of which nearly 300 were youth jerseys. The most popular jerseys selected as a replacement were those of Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady, Chandler Jones, and Stevan Ridley.
Dan Harrington, 37, of Melrose, left a family vacation in Maine to bring his two sons down to the shop and take advantage of the offer.
“We had a good conversation about how we didn’t want them to wear the jerseys of people who were not good role models,” Harrington said.
His 8-year-old son, Drew, was looking to replace his red Hernandez jersey with a Danny Amendola jersey.
“Now that I get a new shirt, I’m not as bummed,” Drew said.
Or he might get a Tom Brady jersey, as his mother suggested.
“Mommy told us to get Brady because he’s a good guy,” his father said.
Eleven-year-old identical twins Nathan and Martin Sarro of Dover each had two Patriots jerseys. Martin has a Rob Gronkowski and a Tom Brady jersey.
Nathan hasn’t had as good luck with his: He has a jersey bearing the number of Wes Welker, who left the Patriots earlier this year to play for the Denver Broncos, and a Hernandez jersey.
Hernandez was one of Nathan’s favorite players.
“It stinks that he got arrested because he was doing so well. I’m sad but at least now I’ll get a Gronkowski,” he said, clutching a jersey to match his brother’s.
“This takes the sting out of a bad situation,” added the twins’ father Mark, 43. “As a parent I’d never have them go out with a #81 jersey. And these things aren’t inexpensive — kids keep them for a long time.”
Somerville resident Wole Oke, 30, was exchanging a Hernandez jersey he had received as a groomsman’s gift for Chandler Jones’s numbers.
“Hernandez was my guy. We get so attached to professional athletes but at the end of the day we don’t know them personally,” he said. “All we get is what we see on the field.”
He added that although Hernandez has yet to be proven guilty, the exchange event was not a premature move.
“They held off until the arrest. Some may think the move was swift but I think this is the Patriots sticking to their core values,” he said. “It’s a message that no player is bigger than the values of their team.”
Marta Hernandez left the ProShop with a white Brady jersey, and her brother a red throwback Gronkowski jersey.
“They’ve got to rebuild the team now, but we’re rooting for them no matter what,” Marta said.
“And they need to get somebody for Brady to throw to,” Luis added.