FOXBOROUGH — Arnie Larson thought the jersey would make the perfect gift. Back in May, his 15-year-old daughter, Gianna, had a birthday coming up. On the soccer field, she wore No. 81. She liked the Patriots, and their young tight end, so Larson bought her an Aaron Hernandez jersey.
She never ended up wearing it. She was waiting until the season began in September to finally put it on. Then, nearly three weeks ago, on the day police began questioning Hernandez about his involvement in the murder of Odin Lloyd, Gianna told her father she didn’t want the jersey.
He told her to wait to see what happens, but as more reports began to come out, the less either of them wanted to hold on to that No. 81. Larson tried to take it to the Patriots ProShop and exchange it for a Tom Brady jersey. The store wouldn’t take it. He didn’t have a receipt.
“Who knew, why would you save the receipt?” Larson said. “They said, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’ I’m sure a lot of people came down and tried to do that.”
Larson was back on Saturday. The Patriots announced they would offer a free exchange for any Hernandez jersey purchased at the ProShop or online. Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Vince Wilfork authentic Reebok jerseys were available, and another eight players’ replica jerseys were in stock. Fans began lining up outside before 8 a.m.
As of 5 p.m., nearly 1,200 jerseys had been exchanged, of which nearly 300 were youth sizes. The most popular replacement jerseys were those of Wilfork, followed by Brady, Chandler Jones, and Stevan Ridley. The organization hopes to find a way to recycle the Hernandez jerseys into another product, but if that can’t be done they will be destroyed.
The exchange program came as no surprise to Larson.
“I honestly thought that they would do the right thing,” Larson said. “[Owner] Bob Kraft and his family have done nothing but do the right thing. It’s a crapshoot when you draft players. I know that, because you really don’t know who people are once they leave and what they do, but it seems like even when mistakes are made they do the right thing to correct those mistakes.”
The offer was especially helpful to parents with young children. Mike Vitelli already had done his best to explain the Boston Marathon bombings to his 8-year-old son, Brady, in April. Brady was worried the bombers might show up at their home in North Attleborough. He was worried again when he heard about one of his favorite Patriots, whose jersey he got last season, being involved in a murder investigation. And unlike the Marathon bombings, the murder allegedly happened near their home.
“It’s one of those things where you just try to explain that sometimes bad things happen, sometimes people that you think are good people aren’t necessarily good people,” Vitelli said. “That’s the best you can do.”