Ken Gear with a student at the Bethesda Boxing & Kickboxing Academy. Photo by Darren Higgins

On Jan. 1, 1981, Ken Gear played wide receiver for the University of Michigan at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. A crowd of 104,863 watched the Wolverines pummel the University of Washington by a score of 23-6. These days, Gear runs the Bethesda Boxing & Kickboxing Academy, a small storefront gym on St. Elmo Avenue, where he teaches a class of four young men with autism. There are no marching bands or television cameras, no cheerleaders or championships. But at 59, he is rediscovering the passion and purpose he felt long ago as a college athlete.

“In our autism class, at the end of each class we put our hands together and we say, ‘team on three,’ ” he tells me. “We’re a team, and I think that’s resonating with them. We’re all in it together, and that’s the approach that seems to work.”

“They were not allowed to be on sports teams, and I view this like it’s a sport,” Gear says of his students, who range in age from their late teens to mid-30s. “We’re just practicing, we don’t have any games, but practice is our game. We’re getting better every time, and they’ve responded very well. People rise to the expectations that are set for them. That’s always been my experience.

Progress is measured in very small steps. Gear describes one class regular who could not learn to throw a left hook. Finally, the boy’s mother, who was observing the lesson, suggested he move his left foot at the same time. “As soon as he turned his left foot, his shoulder turned as well, he was doing the form I was looking for,” Gear recalls. “That was a huge breakthrough, I could see in his face how happy he was at getting it.”

Gear grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where his father worked as an extension agent for the University of Wisconsin and his mother was a nurse practitioner. At the beginning of his junior year at Michigan, six months after the Rose Bowl, he “pulverized” his liver when he ran into a retaining wall during preseason practice. “That ended my football career,” he says, “but it opened the door for me to explore as a student.”

He took a creative writing class, hung out with a group of grad students, “read a lot of black literature” and, after graduation, earned a master’s degree in urban policy at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. Gear was working on Wall Street for Standard & Poor’s, the bond-rating agency, when his wife’s job with a financial services company brought the family to this area in 2006. They settled in Potomac with their three children, who are now in their 20s, and Gear cycled through jobs with Fannie Mae and the D.C. government.