Anyone who’s ever attended a graduation ceremony knows the commencement speaker faces a very special challenge: Be inspiring. Use soaring rhetoric. And say something that may echo for years after.

This commencement season is no exception, but one of the best pieces of advice delivered so far was a bit more blunt: “Demand the ball.”

If you haven’t heard Abby Wambach’s address to Barnard College graduates, check it out at You may think this a surprising source from an unusual location, but I’d encourage you to watch the video and hear the soccer legend deliver her impassioned words.

“Demand the ball” is a lesson that Wambach learned from another soccer legend, Michelle Akers. Wambach recalled how, as a teenager, she got a chance to play a scrimmage match with Akers, whom she described as “one of my heroes.”

For most of the match, Akers was focused on coaching Wambach and her teammates. But then she realized that her team was in danger of losing, and she immediately shifted gears.

They were three points down. “In that moment, a light switched on inside of her,” Wambach said.

“She ran back to her own goalkeeper, stood 1 yard away from her and screamed: ‘Give. Me. The. Ball.’ ” She got it, dribbled through Abby’s entire team and scored.

Then Akers did it again — demanded the ball, dribbled through the team and scored.

Then she did it a third time.

Wambach’s point, of course, is that there are moments in our lives when it’s all-or-nothing time. When we have to stop hedging our bets. When we have to speak firmly, act clearly — and execute.

Think of your heroes. Chances are, you admire them in large measure because they did the same thing. At some key moment, they stepped forward. And with a spirit of courage and conviction, they got the job done.

It could be Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated public bus or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. launching his courageous campaign against the shameful racism of the Jim Crow era.

It could be President Ronald Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate and — against the advice of many advisers — challenging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!”

Or it could be Ambassador Faith Whittlesey, who devoted her courageous career to the defense of our nation and the blessing of life — and who encouraged me to demand the ball when I first arrived in Washington.

There are many other figures you could probably name. Some of them are famous, but many aren’t. We all have our own personal heroes.

You know who I mean. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and colleagues. People who, when circumstances demand it, say figuratively, if not literally, “Give. Me. The. Ball.”

That’s part of the greatness of America. Men and women, striving to do what’s right, day after day, no matter who’s looking.

In fact, it’s precisely this grit that made America possible. Think back to the Founding Fathers and ask yourselves: What was their quest for independence but a way of demanding the ball? They could have taken the easy way out and acquiesced to King George III. But they didn’t. They stepped up. They didn’t ask for liberty. They took it.

It was hard, no question about that. It took more than a declaration — it took a long and bloody war. But they put their lives and fortunes on the line, and many of them paid an enormous price.

But don’t assume that heroism goes only to larger-than-life figures. It goes to all who refuse to lose. To all who are willing to jump into the breach. And to those who do what it takes to win.

So if you want to make your community, your state, your nation and your world a better place, don’t just sit there and complain. Stand up and say, “Give me the ball.”

And then run with it.


Kay Coles James is president of the Heritage Foundation. This article was distributed by the Tribune Content Agency.