MOUNT GREENWOOD — "Judge" Marty Berry wears his passion for the Brother Rice rugby program on his fingers — literally.
The 68-year-old founder of the program and graduate of the school sports five of the Crusaders' giant state championship rings on his digits — three on his right hand, two on the left.
"It is bling I guess, but it's my commitment to rugby, and that's a great thing," said Berry, of Evergreen Park, a retired associate judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County.
The Crusaders are seeking their 10th state title this year after Berry created the program in 2001. Brother Rice's coaches and players give Berry — whom everyone calls "Judge" — a great deal of credit for the success.
""Without the Judge, there might not be any rugby at Brother Rice," said head coach David Fee, a former USA National Team player.
"We're lucky to have him," said Brother Rice senior Andrew Canedo, an open-side flanker. "He's like a team dad."
How Canedo joined the rugby program is a typical Berry recruiting story. Canedo was hanging out by himself in the Crusaders' weight room as a sophomore when the bejeweled Berry walked up to him and began discussing rugby's merits.
"My first impression was, wow this guy is really nice," said Canedo, of West Lawn. "And he was very persistent."
Berry, a 1964 Brother Rice graduate, was president of the student council as a senior and played right guard on the football team until concussions ended his career. Rugby wasn't offered at the school during his time there, and Berry didn't become attached to the sport until his son, Mick, began competing for the South Side Irish Rugby Football Club in his 20s.
When Mick was 25, his South Side team reached the national championship game in 2000, and his father loved being associated with a winning outfit. Berry wanted to bring that feeling to Brother Rice, where he also taught religion and social studies for three years while he attended IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.
After a pitch to make rugby a varsity sport at the school was rejected, Berry went the club route, where players pay a nominal fee to participate. Since it's not an official Brother Rice team, students from other schools are allowed to join, and the Crusaders have players from Marist and Shepard high schools this year.
The Crusaders won an Illinois Youth Rugby Association title in their second year of existence and haven't stopped claiming crowns since. They also prevailed at the National Invitational Tournament in Elkhart, Indiana, last year.
"I think about rugby as a champion sport, and we are champions," Berry said. "And being part of it helps me be young. It helps me feel good about myself, and I thank God about that."
Decades ago, Berry almost dedicated his life to God. After he graduated from Brother Rice, he was enrolled at Northern Illinois University for a semester before deciding to become a member of the Irish Christian Brothers, now the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers. He left for training in West Park, New York, but after a year returned to NIU.
"It would have been a wonderful life, but the more I thought about it, the harder it was to stay," Berry said. "It was one of the hardest decisions I've made in my life."
His wife of 40 years, Catherine, is glad Berry changed his mind. Catherine, whom everyone refers to as "Peach," is four days older than Berry, and the two have known each other since first-grade classes at St. Nicholas of Tolentine school. They also grew up blocks apart in Chicago Lawn.
Ironically, she hosted the going-away party for Berry's departure to the Christian Brothers. They started dating after he graduated from NIU and he needed a date for one of his fraternity brother's weddings.
Peach goes to a few of the Crusaders' games, but the pastime is mainly for Berry. He never misses a practice or tilt, standing on the sidelines during contests.
"It gives him something to do," said Mick Berry, a '92 Brother Rice alumnus. "He goes every day. And you can't go to a restaurant without him going up to a bus boy to see if he wants to play."
Berry also routinely invites players and coaches to Monday breakfasts at his favorite joint, Bialy's Cafe in Evergreen Park. The Berrys have three daughters — all Mother McAuley graduates — and four years ago, Marty asked officials there to start a sister rugby program to Brother Rice's. He was denied.
Berry consistently is covered by Brother Rice Rugby apparel, including the grey state championship shirt and one-of-a-kind black winter coat he donned Thursday.
"I just think he loves it," said Peach Berry, a retired teacher from Taylor Elementary on the East Side. "It's a passion, that's for sure."
Berry isn't experiencing a normal retirement. He doesn't fish and hasn't golfed since his last day on the bench. In the next two years, he hopes to earn a master's degree in theology from Hyde Park's Catholic Theological Union, which he'll use to become a Pastor Associate at Most Holy Redeemer Parish in Evergreen Park.
In the meantime, he'll keep showing off his rings and making sales pitches on behalf of his beloved program.
"I tell them rugby is a great sport, and if you play at Brother Rice, you'll play on a winning team," Berry said. "That's how I start it, then we go from there."
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