April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

GREG AND RYAN SMITH ARE HIKING under overcast skies up to Waipahee, a 20-foot cascade that forms a natural water slide near the eastern edge of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. It is a beautiful spot, but today the brothers have come not to admire but to mourn. “It was just like this the day that Shannon died,” says Ryan, 23, tossing a big yellow protea blossom into the water and watching it whirl round and round before it disappears.

Shannon, 20, was Greg and Ryan’s brother, a placekicker on the University of Hawaii football team. A week earlier, on March 29, he had led a hiking party to the waterfall, which was swollen by rain from the previous night. When he and 6-year-old Cody vonAppen, the son of head football coach Fred vonAppen, found themselves caught in a whirlpool at the base of the falls, he was forced to make a fateful decision—one that saved Cody’s life but cost him his own.

Like so many other tragedies, this one started out happily. Smith and the vonAppen family—Fred, 55, his wife, Thea, 35, and their kids Kristan, 17, and Cody—were spending Easter weekend in one of the Smith family’s guest cottages on Kauai. Also invited were Shannon’s teammates, quarterback Tim Carey and defensive back Chris Shinnick. On Friday evening, Smith’s parents, Norbert, 63, and Rosemary, 54, cooked a big dinner. “Shannon was so happy,” says Rosemary. “He was glowing.”

The next morning a group of 11 set out for Waipahee, a mile’s hike from the nearest road. Cody and Shannon were the first to arrive at Waipahee, where the stream normally sweeps gently down the slide into a warm pool about 10 feet deep. On this Saturday morning, though, the force of the stream had made the pool treacherous, “sucking,” says vonAppen, “like the action of a toilet bowl.”

Unaware of the danger, Smith dove in, emerging downstream from the pool’s whirling vortex. Climbing out, he took Cody to the top of the slide as Cody’s mother snapped a photo. Then the two of them, Cody in front, plunged together down the chute. When some 10 seconds went by and they still hadn’t surfaced, Thea, alarmed, jumped in after them. Soon all three were bobbing in the current. “We need help!” Thea yelled.

Coach vonAppen and Carey plunged in too. “We were all getting sucked under,” says vonAppen, but Smith still held tightly to Cody, pushing the youngster to the surface as he held his breath below. Finally, Smith—still underwater and close to exhaustion—managed to hand Cody to Thea. She passed him to her husband, and Carey pulled Cody ashore. “My sole focus,” vonAppen recalls, “was getting Cody to safety.”

Clearly it was Shannon Smith’s focus as well. “At some point,” says vonAppen, “he could have gotten himself out of harm’s way, but he wasn’t going to leave the water until everyone was safe.” It wasn’t until the vonAppens and Carey were out of the water that Shinnick, who had extended a tree branch to the swimmers from the shore, shouted, “Where’s Shannon?” Ninety minutes later he was found, by a rescue diver, facedown at the bottom of the pool. A contusion on his head suggested that he had been slammed into a rock and knocked unconscious.

Sitting in the sunny den of her yellow plantation-style house, Rosemary Smith tearfully explains just who her son was. Even as a boy, she says, Shannon would find kids who were in some way troubled and invite them home. “We never knew if they would stay the night or the month,” she says. “But every kid who landed here left with the Shannon touch.

“He wasn’t just a jock,” she continues. “He played with kids, volunteered at a summer camp, visited sick people in the hospital. Every parent wants to teach their children, but he taught us. Shannon embraced life so powerfully.”

That is something the vonAppens don’t have to be told. “Shannon was a special kid,” says his shaken coach. “Every time we look at Cody, we’ll remember that the reason he is with us is because Shannon sacrificed his life for another.”

WILLIAM PLIVIMER

KEN BAKER on Kauai

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