Duke basketball player from Chicago to bike and jog across America for a worthy causeMay 17, 2018 8:46am

May 10-- There's a certain fascination with Mike Krzyzewski, the modern-day John Wooden who has coached Duke to five NCAA championships and Team USA to three Olympic gold medals.

Yet when Duke basketball player Brennan Besser, a junior from Chicago's Latin School, brought sister Jacqueline to a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, she played it cool. Coach K introduced himself, and Jacqueline ... well, she went back to watching Barney on her iPad.

"Probably the only person to ignore him in the last 30 years," Besser said with a chuckle.

Jacqueline, 23, is different. But different in a way that has inspired Besser to do something that reflects both his immense love for his sister and his desire to help what he calls America's "hidden population"-those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Brennan and sister Rachel will embark on a cross-country journey, biking, walking and jogging more than 3,400 miles across 16 states, which they started Wednesday in Seattle and ending in New York. They will stop in Chicago from roughly June 23 to 25 to mentally refuel and reunite with Jacqueline.

"Something I love about Brennan," Rachel said, "is that he dreams really big."

The 69-day journey is called "Walk On! America," and there is a double meaning. Besser walked on at Duke, where Krzyzewski said "he has contributed in every way except playing time."

"In preparation, spirit, work ethic, he is really a one-of-a-kind walk-on," Krzyzewski said. "If he was in a Broadway play, he'd be in 'Les Miz,' leading the charge. He is somebody you would want on your team forever."

Besser is striving to de-emphasize his role, even though he's the one trudging from coast to coast and personally calling gyms and contacting Duke alumni such as Northwestern coach Chris Collins and Timberwolves forward Amile Jefferson to ask about their availability for basketball clinics.

"The primary meaning of 'Walk On' is to push forward and never quit in the face of adversity," he said. "We hope to raise a lot of money to redistribute to people we meet along the way and to organizations that are helping these families. But at the same time, it's a rallying cry.

"We hope to be able to touch the community and shine a light on the American population of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities."

Growing up with such disabilities is an enormous challenge, as is caring for those children and young adults. Jacqueline is non-verbal, and Brennan recalled times when a trip to McDonald's or Jewel would put everyone on edge.

"She'd have a tantrum because she wanted to keep pushing the shopping cart," he said. "Those are experiences that every family with these challenges deals with."

Said Rachel: "But we've been fortunate. We have a big family."

Jacqueline participates in programs at Misericordia that is home to 600 children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities.

Brennan and Rachel worry about all the families, especially in remote areas, that cannot afford to hire caretakers or enroll their kids in specialized programs.

"We want to help them in any capacity we can," she said.

Rachel lives in New York, where she studied media and culture at NYU. She's a video host and the fashion editor at Refinery29, which produces programming tailored to young women.

Given the goal of having "Walk On! America" impact as many families as possible, she will produce video content for YouTube and try to develop a long-form documentary of the journey.

Rachel said Brennan is "strong-willed and not just up for physical challenges but any type of challenge."

Brennan, 21, said he ran a 5-minute, 5-second mile during team combine testing before his sophomore year.

That's impressive. Now do it 3,500 times, sir. Or, better yet, grab a bicycle. His longest one-day trek is slated for 193 miles.

"We're going to try for 50 cities," he said. "I believe we can do it. Who knows, at some point I could strain my hamstring and we could be motorcycling."

The 6-foot-5 Besser has played one lone minute at Duke, though it proved enough time to jack up a 3-pointer against Elon. He has two remaining seasons of eligibility after redshirting in 2017-18. On a team for which McDonald's All-Americans jockey for playing time, Besser views his main role through the prism of leadership.

"With the one-and-done phenomenon, it's really hard to maintain a culture," he said, "and team culture is everything."

After embarking in Washington and visiting Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Delaware and New Jersey, he hopes to reach New York on July 18.

"I do have a dream scenario of how this ends," Besser said. "I hope we can celebrate really large in New York and feel that we've made a positive impact on American culture."

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(c)2018 Chicago Tribune

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