Former Chicago Bears player Charles Tillman is facing his fears for a good cause.
The 38-year-old — who played 12 seasons in Chicago and one with the Carolina Panthers — is currently crafting a boat that, come August, he’ll use to row non-stop across Lake Michigan to raise funds for pediatric cancer research and to provide monetary assistance to families of young cancer patients.
“My daughter and so many other kids are challenged to fight for their lives every day,” Tillman tells PEOPLE, “and I wanted to challenge myself to bring awareness to cancer, specifically neuroblastoma.”
Tillman is building the boat in order to keep costs low, which, in turn, will mean more funds for more families in need. The athlete also enlisted the help of Jacob Beckley, who has rowed Lake Michigan once before — and had never planned to do so again until he was asked by the former NFL player.
And Tillman will need as much help as he can get, since he has never rowed, and doesn’t even like being around large bodies of water.
“Lake Michigan is the perfect obstacle for myself and Jake. It’s not too big but just big enough to challenge,” he says. “I’m not too fond of big bodies of water, especially sharks. Now you say sharks aren’t in lakes but I heard on Shark Week that a bull shark can live in fresh water, so I’m convinced Lake Michigan has bull sharks!”
Beckley is the founder of the Beckley Foundation, which supports research into finding cures for neuroblastoma, while Tillman established the Cornerstone Foundation to focus on the crushing effects childhood illness has on families.
With only a few months to go, Tillman is hard at work — just like during his NFL career — to keep his body in shape.
“For now, I’ve just been lifting weights at Vlad’s gym, my trainer. I also reached out to my roommate from college, Chris, to give me some workouts,” Tillman, who amassed 38 interceptions during his career, says. “As the row gets closer, I’ll be rowing almost daily as well as running and biking to get my cardio up.”
Tillman hopes that rowing across the large lake will have a positive ripple effect on those who need it most.
“I’m hoping we will inspire people to challenge themselves to do something about what they are passionate about. I’m scared of big bodies of water and I want to concur that fear,” he explains.
“Children are resilient and some of the toughest people around,” Tillman adds. “If they can beat cancer or recover from a heart transplant, the least I can do is row across lake Michigan and raise money for them.”