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Helping kids deal with the disappointment of heroes gone bad

July 16, 2013 at 8:18 AM ET

Brady Vitelli was so excited to receive an Aaron Hernandez football jersey for his eighth birthday in September that he even wore it to bed that night.

During the New England Patriots’ 2012 season, Brady often wore the jersey to school on Fridays and on game days, too, celebrating in front of the television along with Hernandez whenever the tight end scored.

“He was absolutely psyched about it,” Mike Vitelli said of the jersey he bought for his son.

But when the player his son loved to emulate was charged with murder and dropped from the team last month, Vitelli faced the delicate challenge familiar to many parents: having to explain to their children why their role models have fallen from grace.

Brady Vitelli, wearing his new 87 Rob Gronkowski jersey.
Courtesy the Vitelli family
Brady Vitelli, wearing his new 87 Rob Gronkowski jersey.

Vitelli, who lives in North Attleborough, Mass., did not shy away from the truth. He told Brady that the man whose name stretched across the back of his jersey stood accused of killing someone, and that bad things can happen in life, but he reassured the boy that he was safe.

“At least with my son, he appreciates the honesty,” said Vitelli, 39, a high school gym teacher. “He was disappointed and kind of shocked.”

Vitelli told Brady he no longer wanted him wearing the disgraced player’s jersey, and he took the Patriots up on their recent offer of a free jersey of another player in exchange for a Hernandez jersey. Of the more than 2,500 Hernandez jerseys brought back to the stadium in Foxborough, Mass., the team said more than 30 percent were in youth sizes.

Brady was sad at first to surrender his birthday present. “I really liked him before he got arrested,” Brady said of Hernandez, “but once I heard all that stuff that happened, I said it was good for me to get rid of it.”

Brady, whose name is a nod to Patriots superstar Tom Brady, said he had admired Hernandez because he was a great player who “got everybody ready to win.”

“He looked like a good guy on the field,” the young Vitelli said.

But looks can be deceiving. For kids younger than 13, “the person is bigger than life and not really real,” said Dr. Stuart Goldman, senior associate in psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital, so it is up to parents to help them distinguish on-field prowess from poor, off-field behavior.

 Mike Vitelli and Brady.
Courtesy the Vitelli family
Mike Vitelli and Brady.

“It’s a real opportunity to point out that being a great football player doesn’t make you a great person,” Goldman said. “Those are different skills.”

It is a normal part of child development for kids to find hero figures to worship, Goldman said, and kids feel more empowered when they slip into a star’s jersey.

“Instead of feeling like a relatively small 8-year-old boy, you feel like you can be tight end Aaron Hernandez,” Goldman said. “It’s somehow, I’m special because I identify with this man or woman who the world has created a special image of.”

If that star falls out of favor, though, disappointment and disillusionment are natural feelings, he said, noting there has been no shortage of athletes caught up in scandals, like Lance Armstrong, Michael Vick and Tiger Woods.

Goldman recommends that parents tell kids as young as 8 the truth about the accusations against Hernandez, though not necessarily every detail, and to find out what they know to dispel untruths.

Most kids can move on from a disgraced hero easily, Goldman said. “They don’t love the person, they love who the person represents,” he said.

That was the case for young Brady, who now owns the jersey of his new favorite Patriot, Rob Gronkowski. “I love when he does that spike,” Brady said giddily of the tight end’s crowd-pleasing touchdown celebration, known as the Gronk Spike.

It is not just parents of young children who pushed their kids to relinquish Hernandez jerseys, which some people are viewing as collectibles and trying to sell online.

Katherine Pearce traded in her Hernandez jersey for a Wilfork jersey
Katherine Peace
Katherine Pearce traded in her Hernandez jersey for a Wilfork jersey

College student Katherine Pearce, of Weymouth, Mass., swapped hers after her mother told her she “didn’t want me walking around in a Hernandez jersey.”

“It was a Christmas present from my parents, which is why my parents made such a big deal and were making sure I went and traded it in,” said Pearce, 19. “I don’t want to be walking around in a Hernandez jersey either because of the alleged charges.”

For Vitelli, a Patriots season ticket holder, the episode marked a loss of innocence for Brady.

“It’s always terrible when your kids get to the age when they figure out that life isn’t a fairy-tale world,” he said. “It’s disappointing when you can’t shelter them from that stuff and it becomes part of their world.”

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