There’s a split second of silence after everyone says “amen” in the Smith Fieldhouse. The opening prayer just finished, and players on the men’s volleyball team glance up to their right, because they know what’s coming next.
“EAT ‘EM UP, COUGARS!”
The silence now broken, the crowd roars with cheers and applause that pause only briefly during the next 90 minutes. Game time is here, thanks to one man and a thunderous catchphrase.
Martin Wright attends every home men’s volleyball game and delivers the line immediately after the prayer, without fail. But if fans assume the cheer originated three years ago when Wright started attending volleyball games, they would be mistaken.
The cheer “Eat ’em up, Cougars!” dates all the way back to 1979, when a young Wright sat among his fellow students in the Marriott Center for a basketball game. He’d noticed previously that a moment of quiet existed after the national anthem but before the crowd began cheering again and thought this was a major oversight. No spare second should be wasted when it could be used to support the Cougars. So Wright plucked up enough courage to fill the dead air, and a tradition was born.
Wright has continued the tradition in the 36 years since then. At a certain point, people began cheering before the national anthem even finished, so Wright adapted by moving the yell to its current position directly after the prayer, when competition for noise is unlikely to become an issue.
Wright’s dedication to BYU athletics has not wavered over the decades.
“When I was a student at BYU, I never missed a football or a basketball game,” Wright said. “If you don’t go and enjoy everything that’s there, then why be at school?”
Wright still attends as many football and basketball games as possible, but his dedication to volleyball began more recently and takes precedence. It was actually his youngest daughter, high school senior Courtney, who got hooked first when she attended the BYU men’s volleyball game without her parents. She made her dad come to the next match, and he didn’t need any convincing after that.
Now Wright and his daughter never miss a home game and even try to travel to away games at least once a year. They attended the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament in Chicago last year and went to Stanford for the first two matches this season. Each time they go, “Eat ’em up, Cougars!” rings loud and clear.
The BYU volleyball coaching staff and players have taken notice. Seniors Jaylen Reyes and Phil Fuchs know Wright and love the energy he kick-starts in the crowd.
“He’s the man,” Fuchs said. “When he says it, it feels like everything clicks, and our crowd is behind us.”
Reyes can even point out Wright’s exact seats and name the away games he’s attended. Reyes and Wright talk regularly after games about how the team’s doing and the upcoming schedule. Reyes said it’s reached a point where Wright missed one home game and everyone took notice.
“He told me he started coming when I was a freshman,” Reyes said. “So for me it feels like he’s been here forever and has always been a part of it.”
Head coach Chris McGown admires Wright’s dedication.
“I don’t suppose it should surprise me, but it puts a smile on my face to know that people are as excited about our team as we are,” McGown said. “It’s not something you’re used to in our sport. It’s phenomenal to have fans like that.”
Although “Eat ’em up, Cougars!” has existed for decades, it became more noticeable in the close quarters of the Smith Fieldhouse. Wright quickly gained recognition and even expanded his role last year. He now Stories signs on the railing each time a BYU player serves an ace. The BYUtv broadcast regularly features him as he hangs the ace signs, which has given him his own share of fame among volleyball fans.
“I’ve had people come up and say, I know you from somewhere … you’re the ace man,” Wright said. “And I’ve had students come over after games to shake my hand.”
Even Courtney Wright gets her share of fame by association. “I work at a grocery store, and a guy knows who I am because of my dad,” she said. “It’s weird.”
Martin Wright said he doesn’t yell “Eat ’em up, Cougars!” hang ace signs or travel with the team for the glory. He does it because he loves watching BYU volleyball, especially in Provo.
“We’ve been to UC Santa Barbara, UCLA and Stanford, but there’s nowhere that they get over 2,000 people at a game,” he said. “I think everybody should take a friend to a volleyball game. There’s nothing like being in the Smith Fieldhouse.”
This difference is apparent even to the opposing teams. When the Wrights went to Stanford in January, Martin Wright talked to the father of one of Stanford’s athletes. The father said he was disappointed the teams weren’t competing in Provo this season, because he enjoys the excited atmosphere that can’t be found in any other arena.
Wright makes volleyball a top priority but admitted he has to miss the last two home games of the season. His excuse? He has plans to run the Boston Marathon that weekend.
“We’ll have the game streaming on the computer,” he promised.