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Ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich talks of 'dark and long journey' to prison

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich speaks to reporters outside his Chicago home, less than 24 hours before he's due to report to a Colorado prison to begin serving a 14-year sentence for corruption. Watch his entire statement

Updated at 7 p.m. ET: Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was never one to mince words during his political career, had a final moment in the spotlight on Wednesday when he made a statement before reporting to a federal prison to serve a 14-year sentence for corruption.

Calling his impending imprisonment a "calamity" and  a "dark and long journey," Blagojevich told a gaggle of reporters and supporters he was finding it difficult to know what to tell his children in the coming hours. "It's hard for me to say that I have to go to prison," he said.

The former governor also expressed optimism about his appeal on corruption conviction. "This is not over," he said.

More than 50 reporters were swarming his home by mid-afternoon, including two television helicopters hovering overhead and a dozen TV trucks parked along his street. Some neighbors were signing a banner hung over a railing on Blagojevich's house that read, "Thanks Mr. Governor. We Will Pray."

"Everything I talked about doing when it came to campaign fundraising and political horse trading I believed was on the right side of the law," Blagojevich said, echoing comments he made to the judge in the case.

"The decision went against me. I am responsible for the things that I've said," he said. "I accept that decision as hard as it is. And the law as it stands right now is that I have to go do what I have to go do. And this is the hardest thing that I've ever had to do."

Blagojevich spoke outside the home where FBI agents showed up on the morning of Dec. 9, 2008, and arrested him. At the time, a surprised Blagojevich thought the arrest was a joke.

But it was not a joke. Federal agents had spent months wire-tapping Blagojevich's telephones and prosecutors accused him of trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama, in return for political favors and donations.

Three years and two trials later, U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel sentenced the two-term governor and father of two daughters to 14 years in prison for corruption.

Assigned prisoner number 40892-424, Blagojevich, 55, is scheduled to surrender on Thursday and will be sent to a prison in Littleton, Colo.

On Tuesday, Blagojevich took his wife and two daughters to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo to enjoy the mild weather, NBCNewsChicago.com reported. When the family arrived home, neighbors greeted them, offering the former governor support.  On the sidewalk outside his home, posters are still seen with messages thanking Blagojevich and expressing outrage at the severity of his sentence.

"This is what I try to get all my clients to understand," said Wendy Feldman, a prison consultant and coach. "There is a reason that you’ve gotten yourself this ticket to prison. [Blagojevich] is going to have to learn humility, and then respect, and then he’ll need to ease in to the process, because he’s got such a long time to be there."

Read the full story on Rod Blagojevich's day of freedom on NBCChicago.com

The imprisonment of Blagojevich, a Democrat, means the last two Illinois governors are both behind bars, and he becomes the fourth governor in the state to be convicted of crimes since the 1960s. His Republican predecessor George Ryan is also in prison for graft.

One of Blagojevich's aides, Christopher Kelly, committed suicide in 2009 before going to prison, saying that prosecutors had pressed him to cooperate in the case against his former boss.

Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen has called the corrupt practices in Illinois "a hideous bog" that never seemed to dry up.

When Blagojevich and a top aide were charged, local U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said authorities had halted a potential crime spree that would have made Illinois native Abraham Lincoln "roll over in his grave."

Publicity campaign
Through two trials Blagojevich refused to apologize for his actions, even launching a publicity campaign on national talk shows to declare his innocence. Only at his sentencing in December 2011 did he finally apologize but Zagel said it was too late.

Blagojevich's first trial in August 2009 ended with a conviction on one count of lying to investigators and a mistrial on the bulk of the charges due to the reluctance of a single juror.

At his second trial, with his campaign fund exhausted and his eloquent defense lawyer Sam Adam, Jr., declining to continue on the case, Blagojevich was convicted of 17 of 20 counts.

He was acquitted of a single bribery count and jurors deadlocked on two other counts, including one related to a school grant sought by then-U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel, later Obama's chief of staff and now Chicago's mayor.

Initially, the case against Blagojevich threatened to taint the nascent Obama administration since the governor was charged with seeking an ambassadorship or cabinet post in exchange for naming Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to the vacated Senate seat. But Emanuel testified Blagojevich was offered nothing and no one from the administration was charged.

Blagojevich and Obama also shared a friendship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a Chicago businessman and political fund-raiser who was convicted of bribery related to his unofficial role filling state jobs.

Rezko did not testify at either of Blagojevich's trials but the corrupt practices revealed at his trial further stigmatized the state's political establishment, where Obama made his start.

Blagojevich, the first Democrat elected Illinois governor in 30 years, eventually alienated state lawmakers, passing out largesse while the state's finances suffered.

His popularity sank to unprecedented lows during his second term and Blagojevich was heard on the FBI tape-recordings profanely pushing aides to trade the Senate seat for a well-paid position for him because he despised being governor.

At one point on the tapes Blagojevich cursed Obama for taking away his own chance at higher office, showing the now-disgraced Blagojevich once had loftier aspirations.

Reuters, The Associated Press and NBCChicago.com contributed to this report.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave a long, rambling speech a day before he heads off to prison. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

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