After three years of grueling Duke basketball practices and offseason workouts, Brennan Besser hopes his love and compassion for his family will give him an extra push to get through his toughest physical challenge yet.

The rising senior walk-on will begin a quest to bike across the country next Wednesday to raise money and awareness for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including his 23-year-old sister Jacqueline. Besser launched his “Walk On! America” campaign at a press conference Thursday morning in Durham, with a goal to raise at least a million dollars during his journey.

“What we’re really hoping to do is shine a light on a part of the American community that doesn’t necessarily have that strong of a voice, so we’re hoping to bring a lot of positive awareness to this group,” Besser said. “Now that I’m going to be a senior and I just finished my junior year, my time—with the Duke basketball platform and what comes with that, the unbelievable fan base—is now.”

Besser has four older sisters, and he described Jacqueline—the closest in age to him—as one of his best friends. She is nonverbal and developmentally delayed, mostly needing to use an iPad to communicate. 

“When you grow up and you’re outside in public, it’s like all hands on deck with the family because your sister’s on the ground and she’s upset and you’re out and everyone’s looking at you. You just learn to develop a toughness of character,” Besser said. “You’re not embarrassed because it happens all the time, but then you grow up just thinking of things differently because you can appreciate certain things. You can value speech.”

Besser’s first idea to help raise awareness for people like her was to run across the country. He ran the fastest mile on the team as a sophomore with a time of 5:05 and talked to the world-record holder for a cross-country run, Pete Kostelnick, who encouraged him that he would be able to do it with his background as a Duke basketball player.

Last season, the team had an off day, and as Besser was weighing his options for the summer, he woke up and ran 21.5 miles. However, the thought of topping that distance every day for weeks was enough to make him reconsider and move to the bike, which will help him move faster and connect with more people.

In preparation for his trip, Besser has ramped up his training since final exams ended and gone for rides of two to three hours around Durham. 

“Nothing he does surprises me, because almost everything he does is not about him. It’s about his talents, his emotion and his effort to help others,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “This is a terrific thing that he’s doing this summer, and he’ll accomplish so much for so many people.”

Throughout the trip, Besser will have a team of three to four people with him, including one of his other sisters, Rachel, a creative director based in New York who will post video clips to YouTube and his website at walkonamerica.org. The organization is in the process of filing for nonprofit 501c3 status so all donations will be tax deductible. Rachel will also join her brother on the road some days to bike next to him.

Besser plans to bike an average of roughly 60 miles a day, starting in Seattle Wednesday and finishing around July 22 in New York, though his plans are flexible based on the weather. He wants to stop in about 50 cities along his route to host basketball clinics and community events, using some of his connections during his time at Duke to generate attention for his cause. 

“We will truly see how difficult it will be once we get started, but I think I’ll be prepared,” Besser said. “Just as basketball, even though it’s a game that we all love, serves really as a vessel for the leadership coaching that Coach K teaches...it’s really just a vessel for the broader message, which is trying to raise awareness and charitable donations for this hidden population of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

When Besser stops in Minnesota, he has been in contact with former Blue Devils and current Minnesota Timberwolves Amile Jefferson and Tyus Jones as well as incoming Duke freshman Tre Jones about joining him at a basketball clinic, and he hopes Grayson Allen will be done with his NBA Draft and summer league obligations in time to make an appearance at his final fundraiser in New York.

Besser is also particularly excited for his stop through his hometown in Chicago.

“When I was younger in Chicago on Lakeshore Drive, I would go out there in high school at night and just ride up and down the lake and put on my favorite music and just kind of envision—this was when I was trying to get to Duke basketball, so biking has always been kind of a meditative practice for me,” Besser said. “To be able to get back on the bike and especially when we go to Chicago, to be able to ride along the lake, I wouldn’t say full circle because I still have a lot more to accomplish in life, but it’ll be a very cool moment.”