John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH - Arnie Larson thought the jersey would make the perfect gift. Back in May, his fifteen-year-old daughter, Gianna, had a birthday coming up. On the soccer field, she wore No. 81. She liked the New England 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, two weeks ago, on the day that police began questioning Hernandez about his involvement in the murder of Odin Lloyd, Gianna told her father she didn't want the jersey anymore.
He told her to wait and see what happens with the case, but as more facts 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 one. 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 jersey 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 replica player jerseys were in stock as well. Fans began lining up outside the store before 8:00 a.m. There were more than 100 people by the time the doors opened at 9:30 a.m. After a brief inspection of their Hernandez jerseys outside, fans were given vouchers to use in the shop.
The Patriots said that almost 1,200 Hernandez jerseys were exchanged by 5 p.m., and 300 were youth size. Wilfork's jersey was the most popular, followed by Brady, defensive lineman Chandler Jones, and running back 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 move 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 had already done his best to explain the Boston Marathon bombings to his eight-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 tied to a murder. And unlike the Marathon bombings, the murder allegedly happened right 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."
Vitelli appreciated that the franchise would sacrifice profits to help out fans and families. Brady was born in 2004, after the Patriots' Super Bowl runs, and he's been wearing the New England quarterback's jersey since he was three months old.
"They're going to lose a lot of money on this, but that's what makes it one of the best organizations definitely in the NFL," Vitelli said.
Chris Sousa was tempted to sell his six, authentic Hernandez jerseys. He loved the tight end since his days at Florida, and friends told him to see what he could get for them on eBay after hearing that some jerseys were going for thousands of dollars.
But the Somerville, Mass., native couldn't do it.
"There's no point," Sousa said. "I'm not in the game for that stuff. He's a good player. There's no need to defame his name and sell his stuff out there. I stayed true to who I am. I'm a huge Pats fan and I'm not going to defame the franchise and the player by doing that stuff."
Sousa is a jersey collector, and he passed out his Hernandez jerseys to other people in line who said they would help him with the exchange. He left Foxborough with Gronkowski, Brady, and Wilfork jerseys, in both blue and white.
"I don't drink, I don't smoke," Sousa said. "My addiction is sports jerseys."
He also tried to trade in a red throwback jersey, but the authenticity of the NFL equipment logo was disputed and he was sent to the resolution center. A team representative offered Sousa a moonlight poster of Gillette Stadium for his trouble, but he turned it down.
"I don't want it," Sousa said he told him. "Just keep the jersey. Take the name off the back and give it to someone who needs it. If there's a kid out there that doesn't have a shirt to wear, give it to him."