That's heady stuff for an Air Force brat from Belton, Mo. Falcon's father, Lou, became a Catholic deacon there after retiring from the service. His mother, Pat, was an avid hunter, angler and tennis player. Joe loved tennis, too, but began running in the seventh grade because cross-country was the only sport open to his class. That year, he recalls, he was often lapped in three-lap races. He was always last.
Discouraged, Falcon dropped cross-country in the eighth grade to concentrate on tennis. When he was a sophomore, his mother suggested he start running again to build stamina for tennis. He won his first race and was hooked. As a junior, Falcon ran a 4:11 mile, and McDonnell earmarked him for a scholarship. He was contacted by about 50 schools, but McDonnell's early interest drew him to Arkansas.
"You can't really predict who the great ones are going to be," says McDonnell. "I didn't expect him to make the cross-country team when he was a freshman." Not only did Falcon make the team, he became Arkansas's first-ever freshman All-America by finishing 24th in the NCAA championship.
To Falcon, the hunt has always been the thing. "I'm most comfortable when I'm stuck in behind someone, just waiting," he says. Last spring, in the 10,000 at the SWC meet in Lubbock, Texas, Falcon and Texas's Harry Green were even with 200 to go. Falcon won the race by 8.55 seconds. At last year's outdoor NCAA championships in Baton Rouge, he outkicked Michigan's Chris Brewster for the 10,000 title, bringing the final 400 home in 55.1 seconds.
"That's not so slow," says McDonnell, pensively.
"I have a small stride, which helps my acceleration," says Falcon. Another factor is upper-body strength. At 5'6" and 116 pounds, Falcon, who gives away at least 30 pounds to Pee-wee Herman, is brutishly strong. During a weight workout his freshman year, Falcon was getting ready to bench-press 250 pounds. A dozen incredulous football players were watching. One, who had seen Falcon work out before, bet the others Falcon could lift the weight. The skeptics paid.
"Joe's not afraid of hard work," says McDonnell, whose lilting Irish brogue does not alter the fact that he is a man who demands lots of it. "The only leash I ever had to put on Joe was to hold him back. As a coach, you love to hold 'em back."
Nor is Falcon afraid of clean living. "You watch," said Barney after Falcon had beaten him on Saturday. "The guys on the team will go out tonight and do a little celebrating. Joe will go home and have a nice dinner with his mom and dad. He'll play some dominoes and go to bed at 10:30."
On second thought, Falcon might go nuts. He might break out the old flashlight and rod and reel, and do some moonlight bass fishing. Joe Falcon likes to surprise you. Just ask the guys he runs against.