By Ryan Hartnett

Staff reporter

For Princeton senior quarterback Matt Verbit, football has never been just another extracurricular activity — it has defined many of his most meaningful moments through the years.

“I started playing football in junior high and never thought about giving it up,” Verbit said. “I have always followed football with my father being a coach, and it was always a big part of my life.”

Football, Verbit said, has been there from the beginning. The quarterback grew up in Newtown, Pa.-, just 20 miles from the stadium where he would one day make his mark. All the while, his father Steven watched his son, first from the high school stands as a fan and then from the sidelines as Princeton’s defensive coordinator.

Verbit has known success in football from his first days on the field in junior high to his impressive high school career at Council Rock High.

“I became a QB after my baseball coach became my football coach, and he thought I may have a chance to be OK at quarterback,” Verbit said. “I had a successful high school career at Council Rock High School, where I was named All-State in Pennsylvania.”

In his senior year at Council Rock, Verbit threw for 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. In the winter season of the same school year, Matt put up more impressive stats, but this time on the basketball court. He holds the school record for career points with 1,300 and was named to the All-State Team.

After spending a post-graduate year at Valley Forge Military Academy, Verbit knew he wanted to play collegiate football, and he knew where he wanted to do it. He joined his father at Princeton, who had been coaching there since 1985.

“I have been around Princeton all my life,” Verbit said. “And its combination of academics and athletics were too hard to pass up.”

And of course his father was there. But Verbit said playing football has always been his choice.

“My father had the biggest influence on me playing football because he always had advice on certain aspects of the game,” Verbit said. “He never pushed football on me and allowed me to figure out if this is what I wanted to be playing.”

Like most freshmen, Verbit experienced a letdown his first year at Princeton -after leading his high school team for so many years. While Verbit had to sit on the sidelines as a freshman, he never considered quitting.

“I never thought about not playing,” Verbit said. “I didn’t play much my freshman year, and that is hard for all guys playing college football. But sophomore year I began to see some playing time and eventually became the full-time starter midway through the season.”

When Verbit finally arrived, he did so in a big way. He made his first career start against Cornell Nov. 2, 2002, when junior quarterback Dave Splithoff was injured the previous week against Harvard. Verbit rallied the Tigers back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit with a touchdown pass and a rushing touchdown to win in overtime 32-25.

Later that season, Verbit threw for a career-high 251 yards against Yale in a 7-3 loss at the Yale Bowl.

In 2003, his first full season, Verbit completed 174 of 327 passes for 2,499 yards and 13 touchdowns, which was good for the fourth-best passing total in school history. Included in those yards was an Ivy League- and NCAA-record 99-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Clinton Wu in a 34-14 win over Brown. Wu likened Verbit’s style to Brett Favre.

“Matt is a pure pocket-passer, although he definitely has the speed and athletic ability to scramble out of the pocket and create plays on the move,” Wu said. “I would compare his style of play to that of Brett Favre; Matt has a cannon for an arm and in the huddle he definitely is the field general-type of leader. He is pretty calm in the huddle, never nervous.”

Wu said as a receiver he has to be prepared to catch Verbit’s bullet-like passes.

“As for catching one of his passes, all I can say is that he throws really, really hard,” Wu said. “So you can expect the ball to be there pretty quickly.”

Princeton head coach Roger Hughes said he has enjoyed watching Verbit progress as a quarterback since he started coaching in 2001.

“[Verbit’s] decision-making process is much more sophisticated,” Hughes said. “He clearly has a better understanding of not only what our offense is doing, but of what defenses are doing against us. He’s been outstanding at becoming the team leader on offense. The guys really rally around him. He’s the coach on the field.”

Hughes said that Verbit performs well in pressure situations, but he can put himself in difficult situations when he tries to do too much.

“Generally, [Verbit] performs very well and very cool,” Hughes said. “I think he tries to take on as much as he can responsibility-wise to get the team to move, but the players around him don’t always perform — -sometimes that gets him into trouble.”

Through seven games, Verbit’s numbers are lower than those of last season. He finished the 2003 campaign second in the Ivy League in total offense (269.9 yards per game) and fourth in passing yardage per game (249.9). But this season, Verbit is averaging only 181.6 yards per game, while throwing for 1,271 yards.

Still, Verbit recently became the second-leading passer in school history. Wu believes Verbit will come up big at the Yale Bowl Nov. 13.

“Matt always rises to the occasion,” Wu said. “If he is nervous, he never shows it, so I don’t think pressure really affects him. If anything, he plays better under pressure. Against Yale, I think he will perform well as he has throughout the season. It will obviously be a pressure-filled, big game situation, and I think he will step up and perform up to expectations.”