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Updated: April 17, 2012 8:14AM

Thursday might have appeared similar to countless other days Rod Blagojevich experienced while on the campaign trail.

Almost everywhere he went, the former governor of Illinois shook hands with strangers, smiled for photos and did a series of media interviews in two states — and even in the air.

For lunch? A few sips of soda at a Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, in Littleton, Colo. — and more glad-handing and photos.

But the day he would officially begin serving the longest sentence ever given to an Illinois politician convicted of corruption while in office was anything but routine for Blagojevich.

After he left Freddy’s, the man who once was Illinois’ highest-ranking politician went directly to Englewood Federal Correctional Institution, reporting in at about 12:45 p.m. Central Standard Time. There he began serving a 14-year sentence, his campaign days over.

“I think it’s kind of surreal to him, but he seems in good spirits,” Freddy’s owner Brian Pyle said after shaking Blagojevich’s hand and telling him to “stay strong.”

Earlier Thursday morning, the former governor bounded down the stairs of his Ravenswood Manor home as a throng of cameramen, photographers and reporters crushed around him and well-wishers shouted encouragement.

As he had done repeatedly before and after his conviction, Blagojevich, 55, sounded an optimistic and even defiant note.

“I’m leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future,” said Blagojevich, wearing a dark shirt, sport coat, blue jeans and what appeared to be gym shoes.

Blagojevich was not accompanied by his wife, Patti, who wiped away tears the night before as he addressed the media. She and the couple’s two daughters did not step out of the house, though she could be seen through the windows and one of the two girls peeked out a window from time to time before her father departed.

“Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Blagojevich said.

“I’ll see you when I see you,” he said to a reporter as he disappeared into the car. “I’ll see ya around.”

Followed by helicopters and television news crews on the road that brought to mind the low-speed chase involving O.J. Simpson, Blagojevich arrived at O’Hare International Airport. A mob of travelers took photographs on their cellphones as Blagojevich, his arms raised, stood in a body scanner before heading down the concourse.

Fellow passengers say Blagojevich was jovial and seemed cheerful when he got on the American Airlines flight. He was talkative and interacted with passengers and, of course, did media interviews, including one with Fox-Chicago in which he said, “ultimately, the right things end up happening.”

At Denver International Airport, he told reporters he was “grateful beyond words for the expressions of support for giving them a chance to serve” the people in Illinois who elected him. But now, he admitted, “I’m doing something that I never imagined would be possible. ”

He then got in a black SUV, and camera crews again followed from the road and from the air as Blagojevich and his attorneys spent about an hour taking a slow drive through the neighborhoods around Englewood Federal Correctional Institution in suburban Denver near Littleton. The minimum-security facility features beige stone buildings encircled by high razor-wire fencing.

The car eventually pulled into Freddy’s, where Blagojevich shook hands and smiled for photos with other customers. When someone recognized him from the television show, “The Apprentice,” Blagojevich replied, “ ‘Donald Trump fired me but that’s nothing compared to what I’m facing today,’ ” NBC-Channel 5 news reported.

Channel 5 said at one point he choked up and said, “I miss home.”

In an interview with ABC-Channel 7 news, Blagojevich acknowledged he at times tried to fool himself about where he was headed.

“I keep thinking about a place, like a military thing that I am reporting to do military service,” Blagojevich told ABC7. “It is a little game I play with myself. The sad reality is that’s a prison.”

After leaving the restaurant, the black SUV finally took Blagojevich to the spot where he could spend more than a decade, possibly more. This time, the car drove past a throng of reporters outside the prison’s main entrance — but Blagojevich, uncharacteristically, made no effort to speak with them.

Accompanied by his lawyers, who did not return calls seeking comment, Blagojevich walked into the prison — and became Inmate No. 40892-424.

The Englewood prison has a few other high-profile inmates, including Jeff Skilling, the former CEO and president of Enron who is serving a 24-year sentence for fraud and other crimes. But most of the facility’s nearly 1,000 inmates are there for drug offences, and some could be in for violent crimes including murder, said U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke.

Inside, Blagojevich’s life will be strictly regimented. The ex-governor will work a menial prison job, possibly cleaning bathrooms or doing landscape work, starting at 12 cents an hour.

Perhaps some good news for Blagojevich is that he won’t have to shave off his trademark thick hair, though maintenance may pose challenges. Hair dryers, for instance, are prohibited.

But the most difficult change undoubtedly will be living without Patti and their daughters, 15-year-old Amy and 8-year-old Anne. In prison, his contact with them will be limited to a few times a month and, when they do see each other, Blagojevich will be able to hug and kiss them once at the start of the visit and once at the end.

On all the other days, he’ll have another fight: boredom.

Under federal rules, inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their terms before becoming eligible for early release. That’s nearly 12 years for Blagojevich, though his term could be reduced if he successfully enters a substance-abuse rehabilitation program.

He could read or play pool in a game room. The avid runner could jog, but only on a prison track for the limited time he’s allowed into the main yard. Internet access is prohibited, as are cellphones.

“After the initial fear of the first days, boredom is the main enemy,” said defense attorney Jim Marcus. “Getting up at the same time, eating, working, sleeping at the same time ... that’s what gets to so many inmates, and Blagojevich is in for such a long time.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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