How is it that Andy Wiersma was able to fill the gym at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall on a Thursday morning in late July?

The sudden death of a young man just making his mark in the world can pull family and friends together like no other tragedy. Andy's death in an auto accident on a country road on July 27 -- just four days after his 26th birthday - was such a blow.

But family and friends alone do not fill a college gym. As many as 1,000 people attended Andy's funeral -- the first ever held in the SMSU gym, to the knowledge of college authorities.

Some might guess that the crowd came to honor a fine athlete cut down in his prime. Andy's high school basketball prowess at Bethany Academy, a small Christian school in Bloomington, was legendary.

He scored 2,207 career points, and racked up career steals and rebounds that put him fifth and tenth, respectively, in state records, according to the Minnesota State High School League.

But Andy was a walk-on at SMSU's NCAA Division II basketball program. His performance there, while consistent, didn't crack the record books.

So it wasn't a desire to memorialize a brilliant athletic career that filled the gym at Andy's funeral. But when you listened to people talk about this young man, you understood why they were there.

Andy had a way of reaching out to people and drawing out what was best and most beautiful inside them, according to Pastor Don LeClere of Evangelical Free Church in Marshall, where Andy served as interim student ministries pastor.

LeClere tells of a disabled man who stood up to praise Andy at a prayer service after his death. The man, an avid Mustang basketball fan, said he had been able to attend games only because Andy and two other players always stayed afterward to give him a ride home.

Andy also reached out to befriend fifth-grader Sawyer Stevens, who was badly injured in the Cottonwood school bus accident in February and became homebound. "Every single week, Andy went over to see Sawyer to do something with him," LeClere said. "He'd take him out to the movies, crutches and all. He called it 'our man time.'"

Andy reached out to rescue students who were struggling with the usual college demons: alcohol and drugs. For three years, he went to Florida over spring break to evangelize. "The beaches were littered with college students drinking," recalled Andy Zweber, his college roommate and a former Bethany player. "He wanted to show that life is fleeting, and that the only thing that can really satisfy us is eternity and Christ's love."

With his love for people and for God, Andy transcended both cultural and geographic boundaries. "He was a friend of guys who liked to party, a friend of spiritual people, a friend of kids, a friend of senior adults," said Rick Pridey, a field director for Campus Crusade for Christ based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

On a mission trip to Bot-swana, Andy taught wide-eyed kids to spin a basketball. In Mexico, he mixed concrete by hand for an orphanage floor in 100-degree heat. In China, he played basketball with all comers, and afterward offered to pray with them.

Coach Greg Stemen of the SMSU men's basketball team summed up Andy's ability to draw people to him this way: "Everyone would say, 'I want a piece of what this guy has.'"

At SMSU, you might say that Andy reached out and grabbed the whole student body. In his senior year, his fellow students chose him as homecoming king. "He wasn't the prototypical homecoming king: blown-back sandy blonde hair and 14-inch biceps," Pridey said. "People loved him for the size of his heart, not his external qualities."

Andy set a different kind of basketball record at SMSU. Each of the four years he played, he won the team's Mustang award, which goes to the player who best exemplifies the team's ideals. "Andy set the standard for us in character, leadership, self-control and self-sacrifice," Stemen said. His impact was so profound that the award was renamed after his senior year: the Andy Wiersma Mustang Award.

After Andy's graduation in 2006, LeClere hoped to enlist the young man's prodigious talents at Evangelical Free Church. In a small ice-cream shop in China, he asked Andy to become interim student ministries pastor. Andy accepted, and the church recently invited him to come on board permanently. An installation service was planned for Aug. 3.

Andy didn't have a chance to start his new job. But he did have one more person to reach out to before his work was finished.

LeClere says he has spoken to occupants of the van -- members of a Bible study group -- in which Andy was riding on July 27. They report that when Andy saw the other vehicle bearing down on them, he grabbed the young woman beside him, putting his arms around her to shield her from the impact. She is recovering, but he took a terrific blow, and was thrown from the van and killed.

But don't mourn for Andy. God surely reached out and grabbed him moments later.

Katherine Kersten • Join the conversation at my blog,