ATLANTIC BEACH, N.Y. (AP) _ A black high school student who was severely beaten by a group of whites, apparently for talking to a white girl, lived in a world relatively free of racism, friends said.

Alfred Jermaine Ewell, 17, didn't pick his friends by race and didn't live his life as if his color were a deterrent, they said.

Ewell, a star football player who dreamed of a pro career, is semiconscious and on life support from a beating last Sunday on an Atlantic Beach boardwalk.

One of four young men who were arrested fought with Ewell during the party in this wealthy Long Island community because Ewell was socializing with a 16- year-old white girl he knew since grammar school, police said.

The walls of Ewell's hospital room are filled with get-well cards, letters and photographs. One photo has him showing off as a body builder and another in his Lawrence High School football uniform.

Ewell, whose number was 22, is nicknamed ''Streak.''

''Get up, 22, you've got a big game to play,'' his coach, Richard Mollo, told Ewell on Friday, taking his hand during a regular visit to the intensive care unit of Peninsula General Hospital in New York City.

Ewell was working toward a football scholarship.

''Football, that's all he talked about,'' said Mario Marra, Ewell's 17- year-old best friend.

Marra, who's white, has been close to Ewell since kindergarten.

''I've told him everything, things I wouldn't tell anyone else,'' said Marra. ''We're like brothers. He didn't deserve this.''

Kenneth Carey, deputy police chief for Nassau County, said Ewell was struck from behind on the oceanfront boardwalk.

The four men arrested - aged 19 to 21 - were charged with attempted murder, assault, aggravated harassment, criminal possession of a weapon and violation of federal and state civil rights laws.

Doctors are usure how much Ewell understands. Friends and relatives mounted a fund-raising campaign to help his mother, who has no medical insurance, pay Ewell's medical bills.

Ewell grew up poor. His mother, Ernestine, is a widow who works as a housekeeper. He lives with her and his 13-year-old sister in a modest house in Inwood.

''Jermaine always found ways to earn money,'' said Tamara Steckler, his godmother, who's white.

''When he was 7 years old, he helped out at the nursery next door to him, or helped a woodworker in the neighborhood,'' Steckler said. ''He never understood that there was any other way to get money then work hard for it.''

Ewell recently started his own home cleanup business to help pay for the insurance and registration fees on his first car. He had his own business cards, Handy Crew, printed with the slogan, ''Your spring cleaning specialist for any season.''

''He's very mechanical,'' said Steckler. ''He could fix anything, and if he didn't know how he would figure it out.''

Ewell was forever creating contraptions, building bikes with three wheels or four handle bars for the kids in the neighborhood.

''He was a hero for the kids,'' Steckler said.