Paul Lewis, a former record-breaking football player for Boston University, knew firsthand what it was like to overcome adversity and make the most of life’s possibilities.
After his All-American career, he went on to become president of Positive Approaches, which provided workshops for neighborhood and school-based groups in Boston and Providence.
“It’s about potential, about opening up the hearts and minds of young people who may feel there is no hope,” he told the Globe in 1999.
“I grew up like these people and so this is all personal,” he added. “If a kid tells me he’s scared about the world surrounding him, I tell him, ‘Hey, I felt the same way.’ ”
Mr. Lewis, who had been director of training for the Youth & Police Initiative of the Stoneham-based North American Family Institute, died Sept. 4. He was 55 and lived in West Roxbury.
His brother Robert Lewis Jr. of Boston said the cause was a heart attack.
“Paul had a tremendous skill in getting young people to open up to him because they trusted him,” said Yitzhak Bakal, founder and president of the institute. “He could empathize and connect with them. He was humble and he spoke from the heart.”
In April, Mr. Lewis helped coordinate a Somali Youth and Police Initiative with Boston police officers assigned to Roxbury and Mattapan, and together they spent a week in dialogue to better understand each other’s cultures.
“Mr. Lewis was perhaps the greatest running back ever to carry the ball for the Terriers,” said Drew Marrochello, BU’s director of athletics, “but it was his life’s work off the field, mentoring countless at-risk kids and dedicating his life to helping them succeed, for which he will be most remembered.”
That career in public service spanned three decades. Mr. Lewis also had served as a community liaison in the administration of former Boston mayor Raymond L. Flynn; as recruitment coordinator for City Year Boston when his older brother Robert was its executive director; and as the Boston-area director for the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps.
The Lewis brothers were part of a family raised by their mother, Annie Mae, who worked two jobs to provide for them when they lived in public housing in East Boston and the South End. “I’ve said this many times, my mother is my only hero,” Mr. Lewis said in the 1999 Globe interview.
“We were the first African-American family to live in the Maverick housing project in East Boston,” he said, adding that “I knew as a young child that I wanted to work with people. I knew I wanted to go to college, and that meant not falling into the wrong crowd.”
Mr. Lewis initially found opportunity through athletics. He was the Boston City League’s most valuable player while playing football at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, and he went on to set numerous records at Boston University.
A 5-foot-8, 185-pound tailback, he helped lead BU — which discontinued football after the 1997 season — to three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs in the early 1980s.
As a senior, he received the university’s Mickey Cochrane Award as its male athlete of the year and the Harry Agganis Award as team MVP. He was inducted into BU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990.
“Paul had a lot to brag about,” former BU head football coach Rick Taylor said, “but he never felt the need to do so.”
Another BU Hall of Famer, receiver Bill Brooks, said his former teammate “was always giving of himself and helping others achieve their goals. Paul was one of those guys you looked up to, who always put team first.”
While at BU, from which he graduated in 1985, Mr. Lewis already was interacting with Boston-area youth. He was a counselor and instructor at BU’s National Youth Sports-sponsored summer camp, where former offensive coordinator Buddy Teevens noticed that “when a shy kid got off the bus, Paul would always go over and say, ‘How you doing?’ ”
Teevens, now head football coach at Dartmouth College, said he will never forget Mr. Lewis’s wonderful laugh and welcoming smile.
Mr. Lewis was an 11th-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 1985, but a nagging injury contributed to his release. He also tried out with the Seattle Seahawks.
In ensuing years, Mr. Lewis collaborated with BU so city youth could skate at Walter Brown Arena, and he arranged for the university to donate exercise equipment to a family center in Dorchester where Mr. Lewis was an administrator.
Paul Lewis was a son of Robert Lewis Sr. and the former Annie Mae Brown, whose marriage ended in divorce when Mr. Lewis was 5 years old.
“I had my mother’s influence and my older brother Robert’s guidance,” he said in the Globe interview. “Robert was like a father figure to me.”
His mother, who died in 2005, worked at Madison Park High School as a transitional aide. “When he was at Madison Park high and broke away on a long run, I’d run down the sidelines with him,” she told the Globe in 1999. “One time, I caught up to him because he had lost his football sneaker. I kidded him and said he’d have to run faster than that.”
She raised her children to care about others, she said.
“If a friend had a problem,” she told the Globe, “Paul would bring him home, and that’s carried over into his adult life.”
His Madison Park High uniform number 42 has been retired, and the annual award as the team’s outstanding running back was named for him.
“Paul was the ultimate leader just by being himself,” said Bill Thomas, a former Madison Park coach and administrator who formerly was a running back for Boston College and in the NFL.
A service has been held for Mr. Lewis, who in addition to his brother Robert leaves his wife, Andrea Perry; their daughter, Nicole; two other brothers, Danny of Boston and John of Atlanta; and a sister, Linda Banks of Atlanta.
“I watched a boy become a man who broke all the stereotypes,” said Robert, a longtime advocate for Boston youth and founder of The BASE, an organization that counsels student-athletes. “Paul had a willingness to do whatever it took on behalf of young folks and of his family.”
In the 1999 Globe interview, Mr. Lewis recalled visiting a high school in Rhode Island, where he spoke “with kids who felt it was cool to be bad” — only to receive a letter later from one of them.
“He said, ‘Paul, I thanked my teacher for bringing you here. You’re like us, so I want to be like Paul Lewis,’ and that letter really touched me.”