Duke walk-on starts cross-country charity ride

Brennan Besser’s 3,400-mile trip will raise money for IDD community

Duke basketball walk-on Brennan Besser is running and biking from Seattle to New York with the goal of raising $1 million for his recently launched charity to benefit those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (Photo by Shawn Krest)

Brennan Besser didn’t get into any games for Duke this past season, but the Blue Devils walk-on was on the bench, with the best seat in the house for the team’s run to the Elite Eight.

Besser will be sitting for much of the next two months, as he attempts to ride his bike across the country.

“This summer, we’re launching Walk On! America, a national effort to raise awareness and charitable donations for the organizations that help support the IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities) community,” Besser said.

The rising senior will hop on his bike Wednesday in Seattle. He plans to pedal to New York City, with a targeted arrival date of July 22.

The winding trip through the country will take 69 days and cover 3,400 miles. He hopes to raise a million dollars in donations.

“In roughly 70 days we’re going to try to stop in somewhere near 50 cities,” he said. “In each city, we hope to connect with the community by hosting a basketball clinic or community event — maybe a walk or a run.”

He hopes to have former and future Duke teammates join him in his quest. He’ll have Timberwolves reserve Amile Jefferson and Minnesota natives Tyus and Tre Jones join him when he reaches that state. He also hopes to hook up with Harry Giles when the trip hits Sacramento, and, assuming his NBA Draft prep schedule allows, Grayson Allen plans to join Besser for the final event, when he reaches New York City.

One of Besser’s older sisters, 23-year-old Jacqueline, is the inspiration for his charitable effort. “She has special needs,” he said. “She’s nonverbal and developmentally delayed. She’s really one of my best friends and made me the person I am today.”

For years, Besser has wanted to do something to support the IDD community and honor his sister. “It’s a very important subset of the American population,” he said. “It’s commonly hidden. We’re really hoping to shine a light on the part of the American community that doesn’t necessarily have that strong of a voice.”

Besser’s time at Duke has given him the platform, and the level of physical fitness, to be able to pull it off.

“Since I’ve been a part of the Duke basketball program, I’ve developed some sort of elite athleticism,” he said.

Still, running up and down the court in practice is a far cry from a cross-country ride.

“With the end of finals this semester, I started to ramp up my physical activity, especially on a bike,” he said. “I’ve been on the bicycle, getting used to that sort of level of intensity. You’re moving different muscles than when you’re on the court. It’s going to be challenging — I know that. We’ll truly see how difficult it will be, once we get started, but I think I’ll be prepared.”

Before Wednesday, his longest bike ride was three hours, around Durham. “I’m not an avid lifelong cyclist by any means,” he said.

Besser plans to average about 60 miles a day. He’ll start off slowly and build up over the first few weeks, and he’ll have support on the road following him the entire way.

“We’ll have a team of roughly four to five people, including two support vehicles,” he said. “We’ll have somebody that has medical training, just in case anything were to go wrong. We’re going to have communications and P.R. people, as well as a general manager for the project who’s going to be based in Chicago. We’ll also have some alternate bikes for anyone that wants to do this with me, just to get a workout in.”

In addition to his classes and basketball practice, Besser spent the last semester making calls and organizing this trip—and charity. It’s the same level of dedication he shows on the practice court.

“Brennan has contributed in so many ways to our program, whether it be in preparation, spirit, or work ethic,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s a one-of-a-kind walk-on. I love him, and the spirit he brings is infectious on this team. 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. This is a terrific thing that he’s doing this summer and he’ll accomplish so much for so many people.”

Besser said he’s nervous and daunted by the challenge, but his sister will keep him moving forward and eastward.

“When I was biking around Durham, I tried to envision when I’m on the road and I’m in the middle of South Dakota, what’s that going to feel like,” he said. “(Jacqueline) will be in my heart all the way through it.”