Extra Point

By Mike Fitzgerald

Wednesday, April 16, 1997

VonAppens’ lives
changed for eternity

HE bounced and jumped and ran with the wind, his blond hair flopping in the golden hue of the late afternoon.

A child chasing imaginary rabbits and rainbows under an azure sky, his mother standing nearby, painted a scene of youth and innocence in its finest swirls and tones.

His father, Fred vonAppen, stood nearby, alone in the center of his workplace, which is a battered green football practice field on the University of Hawaii campus.

The memorial service for Shannon Smith was one week ago, but the pain inside the head coach still screams -- even in a voice softened by grief.

His life was changed forever. Everything is different now, since Smith drowned while saving Cody vonAppen, the coach's 6-year-old son. Today, Thea vonAppen, Fred's wife and Cody's mother, will swim in tribute at the site of the tragedy on Kauai.

Fred vonAppen will be trying to do his job, conducting spring football drills.

"We've been through, heavens, I can't think of much more we can go through as a team," said the second-year Rainbow head coach. "We're going to feel the loss of Shannon in so many ways."

Then he glanced over at his son, who danced with joy, his face a merry-go-round, a grinning ice cream cone.

"Every time I look at Cody I'm going to be reminded of Shannon for as long as I live," vonAppen said, his voice barely audible in a sudden gust of wind. "It helps you put things in context and perspective. You always think your agenda is so damned important -- and suddenly you realize that within seconds no agenda means anything."

He paused, as the feelings that have gripped his soul since a day of fun turned into horror and agony returned.

"As difficult as it is for all of us who were there, it is much more painful for his family," he said. "And the family here at the university, the players, took it hard. Naturally, when you're younger, you're a bit more resilient."

Again, he looked at his son.

"It's like Cody," he said. "I mean, he doesn't understand past and he doesn't understand future, only the present. That's kind of a defense mechanism for us who are older. But it's a hard one to let go of."

SOMETIMES those who play and coach in the realm of sports are overburdened.

Will honoring Jackie Robinson stop a teen-ager from getting murdered every other hour in our country? Will retiring his number slow the racial hatred that still seethes across our nation?

Of course not.

Is it fair or reasonable to dedicate a football season to the memory a young man who died in a flurry of heroism?

VonAppen feels it is a just cause.

"I know that Shannon's zest for life and his desire to see the program turn around, and with his commitment, he would want us to be working as hard as we can to be as good as we can possibly be," he said. "It has to be an inspiration for our players. We would like to draw inspiration from something else, believe me, but if this doesn't inspire you ... the heroics of a 20-year-old man who had a full and rich life ahead of him, who could have got himself out of harm's way sooner than he did, then I miss the essence of the whole thing. I think it has impacted a lot of people and it has impacted our team."

Fred vonAppen and his family have been changed forever. And there's nothing wrong with talking about it, or even using it as incentive for something as plain as a football season -- simply because that's what the young hero would have wanted.

It's also called being human.

Suddenly, Cody vonAppen ran toward his father, his mother close behind.

Then they stood together in the center of the battered green field.

And alone.

Mike Fitzgerald's commentary appears every
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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