They met on a practice football field for Harvard College in 1950, both lowly freshmen, one a conservative Republican from Iowa, the other the last of a triumvirate of brothers who would build a Democratic dynasty. The friendship that John C. Culver and Edward M. Kennedy forged would take them from the gridirons and lecture halls of Harvard to the cauldron of a Senate campaign in Massachusetts to heady days on Capitol Hill, from the peaks of liberalism to the depths of a series of Kennedy tragedies.
Mr. Culver, who would switch parties and become an influential liberal congressman representing Iowa and the father of a former governor of that state, died Wednesday at his home near Washington, D.C. He was 86.
Praised across the political spectrum for his independence and willingness to take tough votes, Mr. Culver served five terms in the US House in the 1960s and early 1970s. He moved to the Senate after winning a race in 1974 for an open seat.
“Among the other senators, Culver soon developed a reputation for brains, tenacity, integrity, shrewdness at picking his issues and skill at pushing them, and an ability to work with his colleagues,’’ wrote New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Drew in her 1980 book, “Senator.’’ “And what he accomplished he did in part through the sheer force of his personality and style.”
Mr. Culver lost reelection in 1980 to Chuck Grassley, who was swept in as part of the conservative wave generated by Ronald Reagan in his unseating of President Carter. In his bid to keep his seat, Mr. Culver could offer little help to Kennedy in his failed primary challenge to Carter.
It was one of the few moments in both lawmakers’ lives when they faced a fight alone, not shoulder to shoulder.
The fierceness each displayed on the gridiron would serve them well in their political battles. Mr. Culver became a star on the Crimson team, a 215-pound fullback who supplied the brawn to the lightning quickness of halfback Dick Clasby. A two-way player, he helped Harvard suffocate Yale in New Haven in 1953, 13-0, the first time it had beaten the archrival in 13 seasons.
“It will be a long time before someone hits a Yale line as hard as Culver did today,’’ wrote a budding sportswriter for the Harvard Crimson, David Halberstam.
Mr. Culvey was named to Harvard’s Hall of Fame in 1978.
Yet some of the most tenacious football, Mr. Culver told the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate in Dorchester in 2005, was played on the Kennedy lawn in Hyannis Port.
“You couldn’t get more ferociously competitive games,’’ he said. “You’d always end up . . . spraining an ankle or getting a black eye. It was always just no-holds barred.’’
His first encounter with the future president was in 1951, when Jack Kennedy rolled down his car window and playfully shouted at the players, “Culver’s a bum!’’
After earning his degree in government in 1954, Mr. Culver was drafted to play in the NFL but instead took a scholarship at Cambridge University in England. He then served for three years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps before returning to Harvard to earn a law degree.
While taking classes, he volunteered for Ted Kennedy’s campaign for Senate, his office in what had been Jack Kennedy’s bachelor pad. One of Ted Kennedy’s first acts after winning his election in 1962 was tabbing Mr. Culver as a top legislative aide and press secretary.
“I had two hats,’’ Mr. Culver told the institute. “I knew nothing about press. I knew nothing about legislation. Nevertheless, he seemed to think I could handle that.’’
Mr. Culver would win his own seat, in the US House, two years later. After being inseparable for about four years, they set out to build their own careers and serve their constituents. But Mr. Culver would remain Kennedy’s confidant until his death from a brain tumor in 2009.
This was perhaps most evident the night before the funeral for Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
“When Bobby was killed, I rode with Ted around New York City, alone, with a driver, virtually all night, before he made that remarkable eulogy,’’ Mr. Culver told the University of Virginia Miller Center in 2009. “I don’t think he slept at all.’’
Mr. Culver served as Kennedy’s emissary a few weeks later when he declined the invitation from party leaders at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to make a last-minute bid for the presidential nomination. “He felt, understandably, that he was 36 years old,’’ Mr. Culver later said, “and that ring would come around again.’’
A year later, Mr. Culver was among a small circle of friends and advisers who descended on the Cape to plot out the path for Kennedy amid the Chappaquiddick scandal and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Culver built a reputation for being able to work with both sides of the aisle when compromise meant progress but being steadfast when his principles were threatened.
During his decade in the House, he served on the foreign relations and government operations committees. He also served on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated allegations of Communist ties against citizens. A defender of civil liberties, Mr. Culver was critical of its methods and wrote dissenting opinions for every committee report.
‘‘He was a man of remarkable character. He was courageous and compassionate,’’ said his son, Chet, a former Iowa governor, in a statement. “He lived his life thankful for the opportunity to serve.’’
Mr. Culver won the 1974 election to replace retiring Democratic Senator Harold Hughes. He was a supporter of the SALT nuclear treaty and wrote the resolution establishing the so-called Culver Commission, which helped modernize Senate procedures.
After leaving office, Mr. Culver maintained ties to Harvard through its Institute of Politics, where he served as interim director in 2010 and has a namesake scholarship. He taught briefly at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Mr. Culver also played a role in placing the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester after discussions that had centered on the Charlestown Navy Yard or near Harvard.
He recalled a walk with Ted Kennedy on Columbia Point, on a cloudy, wintery day. “Clearly, the association with Boston and President Kennedy, the water, and his love of the sea — Ted turned to me and said, ‘I think Jack would like it here. Don’t you?’ And I said, ‘I certainly do.’ Then the decision was made.’’
In addition to his son, Chet, Mr. Culver leaves his wife, Mary Jane Checchi; four other children; his sister, Katherine Baty; and eight grandchildren. He will be buried in McGregor, Iowa, where he owned a home.
In 1967, while Mr. Culver was in his second term in the House, he voted against making it a federal crime to burn the American flag.
Years later, in a speech at Harvard University, he said that though he found flag-burning “distasteful,” it was protected constitutional speech.
“I voted a lonely ‘no’ and only 15 congressmen out of 435 shared my position on the final roll call,” Mr. Culver said, adding it was “the most important vote I ever cast.”
“It taught me a valuable lesson: Do what one believes is right, rather than popular at the moment,” he said. “In my experience, such a practice is not only good for the soul but will most likely ultimately be accepted and respected by the electorate and one’s colleagues.”
In 1989, the Supreme Court struck down flag desecration laws as unconstitutional.
Michael Bailey of Globe staff contributed to this obituary. Material from the Associated Press was also used.